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Study finds biofuels produce as much carbon as fossil fuels

Biofuels made from vegetable oils are as bad as fossil fuels when it comes to carbon emissions, a study says.

Researchers at Leicester University have found that emissions associated with palm oil plantations are 50 per cent worse than previously thought because the land releases carbon that was trapped in peat for thousands or even millions of years.

Producing biofuels from other vegetable oils such as rapeseed and soya also has high associated emissions because using them for fuel indirectly leads to an increase in palm oil farming to meet demand for cooking oil.

‘A tropical forest contains a lot of carbon in its biomass, and to grow the oil palm you need to chop the forest down and replace it with something that stores less carbon,’ Ross Morrison, one of the study’s authors, told The Engineer.

‘So there’s a loss of carbon when you deforest but the largest loss is from the old carbon being released. The only reason the peat is stable is because it’s waterlogged all the time. Once you drain it you allow oxygen into the peat and this causes very rapid microbial decomposition and that releases CO2.’

Biofuels are typically thought of as having low net greenhouse gas emissions because when they are burnt they release carbon dioxide only recently captured from the atmosphere. Previous estimates put their associated emissions at 50 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.

But by taking into account the carbon released from the drained peat and the resulting loss of the land as a carbon sink, the researchers concluded that 86 tonnes was a more accurate figure. Using the EU Renewable Energy Directive to assess emissions over a shorter-term period (20 years), this figure rises to 106 tonnes.

‘This research shows that estimates of emissions have been drawn from a very limited number of scientific studies, most of which have underestimated the actual scale of emissions from oil palm,’ Morrison said in a statement.

‘These results show that biofuels causing any significant expansion of palm on tropical peat will actually increase emissions relative to petroleum fuels. When produced in this way, biofuels do not represent a sustainable fuel source.’

Dr Sue Page, Leicester’s head of the physical geography department, said: ‘Projections indicate an increase in oil palm plantations on peat to a total area of 2.5Mha by the year 2020 in western Indonesia alone — an area equivalent in size to the land area of the United Kingdom.’

If these improved estimates are applied to recent International Food Policy Research Institute modelling of the European biofuel market they imply that, on average, biofuels in Europe will be as carbon intensive as petrol and worse than fossil diesel.

Bioethanol or biodiesel from waste cooking oil, on the other hand, could still offer carbon savings.

This outcome has important implications for European Union policies on climate and renewable energy sources, said the researchers.

‘It is important that the full greenhouse gas emissions “cost” of biofuel production is made clear to the consumer, who may otherwise be misled into thinking that all biofuels have a positive environmental impact,’ said Page.

‘In addition to the high greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil palm plantations on tropical peatlands, these agro-systems have also been implicated in loss of primary rainforest and associated biodiversity, including rare and endangered species such as the orang-utan and Sumatran tiger.’

The research was commissioned and funded by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), an international think-tank made up of representatives from the world’s leading vehicle manufacturing nations.

Readers' comments (10)

  • Bio-fuels have been pushed by those who wish to continue 'business-as-usual', so they will not have to change their excessive life-style. There is a need to get away from are reliance on motor vehicles and for the need to fly.

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  • Especially in the energy and green areas of attention we are very weak in our trying to ask the 'right' question. Answering the wrong question seldom gives the right answers. Any government agency is particularly likely to fall prey to that situation since non-technical bureaucrats are likely to ask the questions and they are seldom the correct ones. All of this work should be seen as an integrated system problem that is much wider than any bureaucrat could ever ask.

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  • This study and others like it are insane. It is as if they are blaming better health care for increased crime because better health care increases the population which in turn causes crowding and poverty and thus crime.
    Biofuels are the only practical, sustainable fuels for transport! In and of themselves they do not emit carbon at all. Destruction of rainforest is a completely separate problem that has many causes. If not palm oil then bananas or other crops or just room for excess people. Destruction of the rainforest needs to be stopped but blaming any particular crop, and doing so to discourage other environmental efforts, makes no sense at all.

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  • This study is quite the opposite of insane. In fact all studies which focus on human impact should be carried out with comparable rigour and vigour.
    This study looks at the option of bio-fuels and takes into account as many of the wider effects as the researchers can identify. Deforestation is caused by demand for resources and therefore is one of the effects of increased demand for bio-fuels and as such must be taken into account.
    The wider issue of human impact, as my namesake above states, should be approached as an integrated system and the aim must be to identify measures which reduce our environmental impact whilst allowing us to continue progress.
    Reducing reliance on motor vehicles and aviation would be asking people to move backwards. Personal and global transport are a reality that can not be erased. You may just as well suggest that we need a program of population reduction, it would go towards reducing human impact but it is not progress. We can't simply remove our problems, we must work to find solutions.
    We need to find solutions which allow us to move forwards. Some ideas will fail, bio-fuels may be one such idea, but others will succeed.

    The real issue is one of time, can we find viable solutions before the problems get beyond resolution?

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  • The main cause of carbon emission is too many people! The second is transport. People commute to meetings instead of using the internet. Check how many business tickets are booked on flights. Why do we need big cities? We can work from home mostly and save fuel.

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  • I suggest that crops are raised in a greenhose controlled environment and processed to biofuel with all energy inputs and outputs are measured. This can be done at the university at very low cost and in very small scale and will quantify any arguments.

    Dinos kynigos
    Marine Engineer
    MBA University of Leicester

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  • I welcome this report showing that the claimed carbon savings from biofuels are illusory. It adds to the body of evidence and scientific opinion that biofuels don't help us fight climate change.

    The conventional 'wisdom' that biofuels do produce GHG savings is largely due to a flaw in the carbon accounting adopted by the UNFCCC and the IPCC. This has been challenged over the years, most recently and authoritatively in the Sept 15 opinion from the European Environment Agency Scientific Committee.


    They argue that:

    "Producing energy from biomass is meant to reduce GHG emissions. But burning biomass increases the amount of carbon in the air (just like burning coal, oil and gas) if harvesting the biomass decreases the amount of carbon stored in plants and soils, or reduces ongoing carbon sequestration. Two important factors that determine whether bioenergy reduces carbon in the atmosphere compared to fossil fuels are (i) where and (ii) how the biomass is produced and harvested. Hence, legislation that encourages substitution of fossil fuels by bioenergy, irrespective of the biomass source, may even result in increased carbon emissions – thereby accelerating global warming.

    It is widely assumed that biomass combustion would be inherently „carbon neutral? because it only releases carbon taken from the atmosphere during plant growth. However, this assumption is not correct and results in a form of double-counting, as it ignores the fact that using land to produce plants for energy typically means that this land is not producing plants for other purposes, including carbon otherwise sequestered. If bioenergy production replaces forests, reduces forest stocks or reduces forest growth, which would otherwise sequester more carbon, it can increase the atmospheric carbon concentration. If bioenergy crops displace food crops, this may lead to more hunger if crops are not replaced and lead to emissions from land-use change if they are. To reduce carbon in the air without sacrificing other human needs, bioenergy production must increase the total amount of plant growth, making more plants available for energy use while preserving other benefits, or it must be derived from biomass wastes that would decompose and neither be used by people nor contribute to carbon sequestration."

    While this debate on the climate impacts of biofuels is essential, it is also important to recognise that industrial scale bioenergy is a scheme developed by western economies to allow high-energy lifestyles to continue as fossil fuel prices rise and supplies dwindle. Because of the huge land requirements - photosynthesis is an extremely inefficient way of capturing solar radiation - most of impacts will fall on people living in poorer countries who will be expected to give up their land, their food security and their future material comforts so we can continue flying, driving and over-heating our buildings.

    Our Govt like many others is intent on rapidly expanding the use of bioenergy – not just in transport, but also in power and heat. They now openly admit that this is because bioenergy is the cheapest way to meet renewable energy targets. But adopting a solution that meets an arbitrary target for renewable energy but doesn’t reduce carbon is utterly pointless. Scientist and engineers should be speaking out against this.

    Finally, there is a moral question here. We in the Global North are largely the cause of manmade global warming. Those in the Global South will suffer more and more quickly the effects of the changes resulting from our global warming. Any climate change solution we design and we try to impose on the rest of the world must not aggravate the current inequities. Large-scale bioenergy fails this test.

    Robert Palgrave


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  • One issue not mentioned is how these newer industries only provide facts (in the loosest term) which supports them or their industry. Such practices need stopping.

    It is very easy to become embroiled in statistics and ignore the real problems, and very easy to produce statistics to support your cause. Its even easier to provide such statistics to non technically minded Governments to create misconceptions and chase the cash from grants.

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  • @Stewart. You've hit the nail right on the head. The "study" is designed to strangely single out palm oil, for reasons best known to the "researchers". These "researchers" should bare their bank accounts to public scrutiny...we're sure it'd reveal a sudden spike in their bank balances following the commissioning of the "study"!

    Palm oil is grown on only 0.23% of the world's agricultural lands and yet produces a whopping 30% of the global supply of edible oil. We've a sneaky suspicion that it is this inherent hyper yielding nature of palm oil that makes palm oil a "marked" commodity to be stopped at all costs.

    Imagine the environmental consequences if palm planters were to switch to planting soy or sunflower both of which has a yield that is 6-10 times poorer than palm oil.

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  • Stuart, did you read it ? There is not, has never been' an environmental case for biofuels; this document just confirms what any intelligent person can work out for themselves. We then factor in the simple fact that we have better potential uses for land-like feeding people-than growing biofuel crops, and like most worthy attempts to address the problem, it all comes tumbling down. Now, if we could seriously develop desert dwelling species to feed the population and then provide biofuels, there is a way forward. Just as the current facile electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles debate avoids the fact that they are actually damaging the situation until we have low-carbon electricity. Oh, like France's nucler programme. Anyone ready to show a backbone and commit ?

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