The Other Side Of Cleaner Energy Biofuels

Biofuels, widely seen as the green way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, may in some cases be worse for the climate than fossil fuels, a report says.

Not only will they cost motorists more than ordinary petrol and diesel and increase fuel consumption: they will also make food more expensive.

From 15 April, to meet European Union targets, suppliers in the UK are required to blend 5% of biofuel into the petrol and diesel they sell for transport.

Rob Bailey, the author of the report, entitled The Trouble with Biofuels, says: “Current biofuels are at best an expensive way of reducing emissions.

Biofuel crop

image via Shutterstock

“At worst they produce more emissions than the fossil fuels they replace and contribute to high and unstable food prices. Policymaking needs to catch up with the evidence base.”

The report is published by the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, a London-based independent policy institute known as Chatham House.

It estimates that as the EU target is reached, biofuels will cost UK motorists about £460 million ($700 million) in the year ahead. This includes the increased cost of the fuel, caused by higher prices at the pumps, and also the need to fill tanks more often because biofuels contain less energy.

The amount of biofuel which the EU requires to be blended in has been rising in the UK by 0.5% annually for some years. The report says further increases to comply with EU targets mean the cost to motorists could almost triple to around £1.3 billion ($2 billion) annually by 2020.

It says biofuels are an expensive way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The cost of emissions reductions achieved by using them is typically several times what the UK Government has identified as an appropriate price to pay.

While the Government says carbon abatement costs per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) should be about £56 ($87) for road transport, the report says the cost using the current generation of biofuels ranges from about £105 to £715 ($165-1,100).

It says increasing biofuel use is also forcing up food prices. This threatens food security in poor countries and is also likely to contribute to higher emissions, as farmers respond to higher prices by expanding production, sometimes into rainforest or peatland.

After incorporating these “indirect emission” effects from changes in land use, often into areas valuable as carbon sinks, the analysis found that biofuels produced from vegetable oils are likely to be worse for the climate than fossil fuels.

The report says biodiesel from waste products like used cooking oil or tallow (processed animal fat) is the most sustainable form of biofuel on offer, but even there the risk of indirect emissions may already be substantial.

Rob Bailey told the Climate News Network: “These emissions are even more indirect than those caused by farmers expanding their production of biofuel crops.

“The price of used cooking oil has increased quite considerably because of the demand for biofuel, and it’s started to exceed the price of refined palm oil.

“You could buy palm oil, cook a single chip in it and then sell it at a profit for biodiesel. It’s the same with tallow, and as prices rise the traditional users of both products have to look for oil elsewhere. That drives production up.”

Accounting for emissions from indirect land-use change pushes up abatement costs for agricultural biofuels to between £215 and £5,540 ($330-8,500) per tonne of CO2e depending on the feedstock used, says the report.

There are currently no safeguards in UK or EU policy for dealing with the impact of biofuels on food security (see our story of 31 January, Biofuels needn’t cause hunger) and deforestation (see our story of 30 January, Tropical peatlands ‘haemorrhage’ fossil carbon).. Unless there are, the  report says, the UK will not be able to meet its EU obligations sustainably.

climate-newsnetworkEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Climate News Network. Author credit goes to Alex Kirby.

Welcome to the Climate News Network, the free, ready-to-use factual service that brings you the latest news of climate change science. We help both scientists and journalists to overcome the difficulties they face in reporting the vital facts about climate change. Building on our contacts and experience, we offer science an unbiased window to the world, while for journalists we offer news stories about climate change where the implications are spelt out explicitly and authoritatively as context and comment.

1 Comment

  • Reply April 20, 2013


    I get that Chatham House is a first rank think tank, but this is old and has already been widely discussed elsewhere. There are several problems with biofuels and hydrogen generated from the excess capacity necessary to get the vast majority of our electricity from renewables may still beat them all out, but the whole point of advanced biofuels is to get the feedstock from land that would not otherwise produce crops. The impact that growing these feedstocks, Miscanthus and the like, in the British Isles’ USDA Zone 5 and warmer climates would have on British food security is negligble unless one’s business is to release the hobgoblins and chase away rational debate. World food security is another matter, but biofuels are presently a legitimate area of investigation in solving the problem of generating the energy it takes to produce the crops that will feed the world in the first place.

    Meanwhile, sugar cane, the biofuel source represented in the attached photograph, is not a major crop in the UK.

Leave a Reply