Fuel for Thought
Are Biofuels Renewable?
Mar 21 2021
On the surface of things, biofuels appear to represent a clean and eminently renewable source of fuel that has impressive environmental credentials in comparison to oil, coal and gas. But while the fact that biofuels are made from organic matter does mean that they can be replenished with relative speed and ease, there is another side to the argument which doesn’t paint the fuel source in such a positive light.
Here’s a quick rundown of both sides of the debate, elucidating the reasons why biofuels make sense as a renewable fuel source – and why their continued use on a widespread scale is problematic in the context of sustainability and society.
- Renewability. Since biofuels are created from plant matter, they can be grown and harvested far more quickly than it takes for fossil fuels to be created. Given that the finite nature of oil, gas and coal is one of the planet’s most pressing concerns at the present time, the renewable nature of biofuels is a strong advantage.
- Emissions. The combustion of plant matter does not emit any more carbon dioxide than a plant would release in the natural course of its life, thus making biofuels effectively carbon neutral – at least during the combustion stage of their life cycle (more on this point later).
- Fuel efficiency. When used as a substitute or as an additive for traditional sources of vehicular fuel (like petrol and diesel), biofuels like bioethanol and biodiesel can serve to boost fuel efficiency and thus enhance the eco-friendliness of a car’s performance. However, it is important to ensure that biodiesel contains concentrations of sulphur and chlorine that are compatible with the engine of a particular vehicle before use.
The case against biofuels
- Emissions. Although biofuels are considered to be virtually carbon neutral at the point of combustion, there are considerable resources and activities which go towards their cultivation, all of which have a sizable carbon footprint. For example, the water, fertiliser and machinery used in the agricultural phase of their production incur significant emissions, while the energy used to refine, distribute and store them also often comes from polluting sources.
- Land use. Many of the locations most commonly used to cultivate biofuel crops (like soya and corn) are found in biodiverse regions that were traditionally forested. By clearing these lands to make way for biofuels, this is not only contributing to deforestation (and thereby removing an important absorber of carbon from our atmosphere), but also destroying ecosystems and habitats.
- Food security. With more space given over to the cultivation of biofuel crops, that means less can be taken up by food production. This jeopardises food security and drives up the price of certain foods, helping to potentially offset the benefits outlined above.
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