Due to the drought much of the country is experiencing, biofuels have been getting a close look this summer. Concerns over the bite they take out of the food supply has caused many experts to question the value of biofuel and the true carbon footprint created by it. The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) has taken the criticism up notch, declaring, “Most biofuels are not green.”
The Swiss researchers looked at the complete life-cycle impact of common biofuels.
When they examined what these fuels consume, produce and cause, which is referred to as ecobalance by Europeans, they found that only a very few biofuels are more ecobalanced than run of the mill petrol.
The problem with biofuels are numerous. The fertilizers that are used to grow these crops often end up in local rivers and lakes. Researcher Rainer Zah said in a press release, “Most biofuels … just deflect the environmental impact: fewer greenhouse gases, thus more growth-related pollution for land used for agriculture.”
This study was an expansion and update of an EMPA report put out in 2007 that was conducted in collaboration with Agroscope Reckenholz-Tankion and the Paul Scherrer Institute.
Biofuels that are made from residues and waste materials came out on top in the Swiss study. These fuels, depending on the source material can cut the environmental impact of petrol in half according to the study.
The EMPA found that ethanol based fuel which is most commonly made from sugar cane and corn normally have a better ecobalance than oil based fuel like palm and soybean oil. The results line up with data that was released by the European Commission earlier this year. In that study they found that palm and soybean based fuels have a carbon footprint that closely matches that of tar sands oil, one of the worst in the world.
The worst biofuel out there is when rain forests are chopped down to clear the way for crops used to make biofuel. Fuels created from these lands usually emit more greenhouse gas than fossil based fuels according to the Swiss researchers. Even when deforested land is not used directly for fuel crop production it can cause issues. When existing land is used for fuel crops it often leads to clearing of still more land for food crops.
While the report was mostly negative when it comes to biofuels the researchers still have some hope. While an outright endorsement is not forthcoming researchers believe that proper management of lands and crops can make a difference in the ecobalance of bio fuels.
The biofuel industry strongly disagrees with the EMPA’s findings. As an example, the group Growth Energy, who promote ethanol, calls the theory of indirect land use flawed.
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