We all know that driving our cars around town creates a lot of GHG emissions that are not helping the global warming crisis. We know that burning fossil fuels for transport energy contributes to pollution and climate change. But does buying ethanol or biodiesel to fuel our cars actually mitigate any of the carbon emissions? Or is this simply another way for fuel producers to scam extra dollars from the concerned citizen’s wallet?
As with all of the topics we will discuss on this website, there is no easy answer as to what is the most environmentally friendly option for fuelling our energy-intensive world. Certainly our transport system is fossil fuel intensive, and searching for new ways to reduce carbon emissions produced by this large system is a start to creating a world that is sustainable (whatever that means). But as the environmental blogger Damian Carrington states; “there are good biofuels and bad biofuels: the trick is telling one from the other.”
For an easy-to-understand explanation of biofuels, check out the Biofuels Association of Australia website.
Although Australia’s biofuel industry is currently very small, the industry in the European Union is worth approximately EU10 billion per year. The US also has a large industry, thanks to the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is a law that requires 40% of the annual corn harvest to be used for ethanol production. However, both the European and US laws have recently come under scrutiny from environmental groups and development workers as the realities of biofuels become more apparent.
The basic premise of biofuels is that they emit less carbon than traditional fossil fuels. When biofuels are burnt, the gases are less toxic than fossil fuels, the handling and storage is safer, and there is a carbon sequestration credit that occurs when growing crops for the use of biofuels (this is in opposition to the release of carbon into the atmosphere from extracting fossil fuels from the ground).
However the reality of biofuel production and consumption isn’t as virtuous as it may seem.
First generation biofuels use food crops in the production process, creating a greater demand and ultimately higher world food prices for staple crops such as corn and soybeans. At first glance, this may seem a great solution to maize overproduction in nations such as the US, however traditionally much of the excess in production has gone to food aid to assist sub-Saharan African nations in crisis. And in years of drought or crop spoilage through extreme weather events (think Climate Change predictions), food aid will be first on the proverbial chopping block.
In addition, world food prices are determined predominantly by supply and demand. Basic economics suggests that the more food crops being diverted to fuel production, the higher the price of those crops on the market. The first to suffer from high prices is of course the world’s poorest.
More recently, studies have shown that the rising demand for biofuels worldwide has encouraged farmers to convert more land into agricultural land. This phenomenon has been labeled ILUC – indirect land use change – and is pretty difficult to quantify. However, one study did create a model to measure ILUC worldwide and the results were astounding. It showed that through converting food production land into biofuel cropland, and then converting forest, swamp or savannah into food production land to make up the food gap, food crop-based biofuels in fact increase GHG emissions over time.
Figure 1. Units in grams of CO2 per megajoule of energy.
These realities have caused great concern for the lofty renewable energy targets set by the EU and the US government. The EU has set a target of 10% renewable transport fuels by 2020 and as already stated, the US requires that 40% of its corn harvest be used to make biofuel.
Luckily, clever people have already started on improving the technology for second, third and fourth generation biofuels. Using waste, algae and non-food crops that grow on marginal lands, biofuels can be produced at a much faster rate than their first-generation counterparts, without the negative side effects of land-use change and competition for food.
Check out this page for an interactive explanation of how algae can be used to make biofuels.
This presents some great opportunities for the Australian biofuels market. Australia has large tracts of marginal land that can potentially be used for non-food biofuel crop production. We also possess a multitude of research organisations and universities that are perfectly equipped to refine the technology for next generation biofuels. We have the potential to create a market that is at the forefront of innovation. And considering our mining exploits will inevitably come to an end, this opportunity looks pretty enticing to me.
In order for Australia to take full advantage of this opportunity, public policy will need to be altered. Effective policy will ensure the further development of good biofuels that take into account the full life-cycle of the product, as well as ensuring biodiversity and food security is maintained. However if we are truly dedicated to creating a sustainable transport industry, targets can also be directed at increasing alternative methods of transport, whether it be better public transport systems, electric automobiles, or other alternatives beyond my imagination. A great start might be to improve the current technology of our automobiles so that we can run engines on 100% biofuel, rather than the most common 10 or 20% blends.
So to recap, first-gen biofuels aren’t as clean as they initially appear, although with continued investment in the technology, next generation biofuels present a great opportunity for Australia’s economy and environment. Although more research and refining of the technology must take place, this is an area in which Australia is perfectly positioned to excel and could position itself one day as the world leader.
 Searchinger et al (2008) “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change” Science, Vol. 319, pp. 1238.
 Singh et al (2011) “A viable technology to generate third-generation biofuel”, Journal of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology, Vol. 86, pp. 1349-1353.
 Tilman et al (2009) “Beneficial Biofuels – the Food, Energy, and Environment Trilemma”, Science, Vol. 325.