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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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The Ugly Truth About Biofuels

Corn Ethanol

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that the world needs to stop consuming so many fossil fuels--and to do so in a big hurry--if we are to have any hope lowering global carbon emissions in time to curb catastrophic climate change and  to meet the goals set by the Paris climate agreement. In fact, according to an alarming 2018 study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial averages within this century, worldwide carbon emissions need to decrease by 45 percent by 2030 and be slashed all the way down to zero by the middle of the century--no easy feat.

There are a huge number of alternative energy sources, from zero-emissions nuclear to solar and wind, and the world of renewable energy technology grows more diverse and advanced all the time. One of these alternative energies, however, may not be as clean or renewable as you may think.

Biofuel seems like an obvious replacement for fossil fuels. It can be easily substituted for traditional fossil fuels without the cumbersome necessity of revamping the energy systems we already have in place. Take ethanol, for example, which you have already been using to fuel your car, as it is required by the government to be mixed into your gasoline. This is the beauty of biofuel--it’s so compatible with our current way of living, you may not even have known you were a biofuels user.

This is also, however, exactly what’s wrong with biofuel. It doesn’t change a system that is clearly broken, dirty, and unsustainable. In many ways it’s just the same as the fossil fuels that we are so very problematically dependent upon. Like fossil fuels, biofuels need to be combusted, and therefore, like fossil fuels, biofuels (despite their very green-sounding name and eco-friendly connotation) create carbon emissions.  Related: Analysts Cut WTI Oil Price Forecast Again

Yes, biofuels create less carbon than traditional fuels when they are burned, but this is not the whole story of biofuels’ carbon footprint. “Clean Technology” news site AZoCleantech reports that, “ the production of biofuels often involves using land already being utilized as farmland. This leads to deforestation, as more land is sought in order to keep up with the increasing demand for food worldwide. Indirectly, the production of biofuels actually increases CO2 levels because it reduces the number of trees transforming the toxic gas into oxygen. This is the first point which reveals biofuels to be a non-renewable source of energy.”

Furthermore, the biofuel supply chain largely relies on traditional fossil fuels, further rendering any emissions saved by the burning of the actual biofuels themselves moot. “From growth of ingredients through to transportation,” AZoCleantech goes on to say, “non-renewable energy sources are key to biofuel manufacture. Further to this, greenhouse gases are emitted at different stages of production, due to the burning of fuel used in farming, the production of fertilizers used on the crops, burning fuel during transport, and more. Meaning that while biofuels may emit fewer greenhouse gases when burned and are that they are produced from renewable products (such as corn and soybeans), these positives are dramatically outweighed by the negative impact of greenhouse gases being produced as an indirect effect of biofuel production, as well as the dependence on fossil fuels along the supply chain.”

While biofuel has enjoyed a fair amount of support from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the United Nations has actually already acknowledged that biofuel, in many cases, does more harm than good. In the past, the UN has even tried to discourage the United States to reduce the country’s own biofuel production, which is itself a very sizeable industry backed by the country’s powerful corn lobby, because it is exacerbating the global food crisis. As Forbes has reported in the past, “Biofuels increase food prices (plus the volatility of those prices) and therefore don't have many of the positive benefits for humanity claimed by proponents. In fact, the UN has asked the U.S. to suspend its biofuel mandates because it was exacerbating the food crisis: a child dies from hunger every 10 seconds. For the U.S. and the world, 48 million Americans live in poverty, and over 80% of the globe is undeveloped, so the rising competition between ‘fuel and food” is a moral issue.’”

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com


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  • Bill Simpson on August 31 2019 said:
    With the possible exception of using sugar cane in tropical Brazil to make ethanol, biofuels end up consuming more energy than they produce. Sugar cane contains a lot of sugar to convert to alcohol and other products. You can burn the waste to make power to use to power the ethanol production process.
    Making all the fertilizer, planting, harvesting, and transporting all the supplies, when using corn for making ethanol, consumes more total energy, that you end up producing from burning the ethanol as fuel. A lot of natural gas is used for producing the fertilizer, the diesel for running the farm equipment and trucks, and electric power for operating the processing plants, all add up to a huge amount of energy used in the complete ethanol production process. And ethanol produces less energy when burned than gasoline or diesel fuel because the molecule contains oxygen atoms. Gasoline and diesel engines get those oxygen atoms for free, from the air they ingest. That is cheaper and more efficient than carrying it around in the liquid fuel.
    Biofuels are nothing but a subsidy to the farming states, whose 2 US Senators have the same vote as the 2 Senators representing California, with 40,000,000 people in it.
    It causes unnecessary topsoil erosion too. So in most countries, it does more harm than good.
  • Jason Heaney on September 01 2019 said:
    Biofuels take the carbon out of the atmosphere so they are renewable. Regrowing them takes the same amount of carbon back out of the atmosphere. The arguments made here don't magically disregard the conservation of energy principle. There are arguments around how much they then reduce but they will always reduce more than fossil fuels directly out of the ground.

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