The European Union (EU) is to review its forthcoming targets for replacing petrol and diesel with biofuels after a succession of scientific studies show that some biofuel production methods can cause environmental and social damage, and even increase greenhouse gas emissions. The three most recent reports that have looked at the whole range of issues surrounding biofuels are: The Royal Society’s report ‘Sustainable Biofuels: prospects and challenges’; Jörn P. W. Scharlemann and William F. Laurance’s piece in the journal Science ‘How Green Are Biofuels?’; and the study by Zah et al. of the Empa Research Institute, commissioned by the Swiss government, which determined the relative benefits and drawbacks of 26 biofuels based on their overall impact on greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact, including: ecosystems, human health and natural resource depletion.
For the first time, the full impact of the increased use of biofuels has been investigated by the scientific community. This impartial scrutiny has shown a number of weaknesses in the biofuels model promoted by politicians and business leaders, both of which have vested interests in the growth of the biofuels market. For example, the study by Zah et al. has shown that of 26 biofuels tested, 12 had a bigger negative impact on the environment than either petrol or diesel.
The EU has set a target of 10% of all transport fuel to be bio-ethanol and bio-diesel by 2020. The UK government has set its own additional target of 5% by 2010. The biofuels market is expected to become a global multi-billion dollar industry. Such a rapid growth in biofuel demand could cause tremendous environmental and socio-economic damage, without actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The EU environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, acknowledged that the EU target to boost biofuel production risked causing more damage than Brussels had realised. Dimas still believes that biofuels could be of benefit, but the EU needs to introduce strict sustainability standards to minimise their impact on food supplies and biodiversity (Guardian).
We have seen that the environmental problems caused by biofuels and also the social problems are bigger than we thought they were… We have to have criteria for sustainability, including social and environmental issues, because there are some benefits from biofuels. – GuardianThe executive director of Greenpeace, John Sauven said:
Government targets mean that soon motorists will be forced to pump these fuels into their tanks, with no way of knowing where they're coming from. We need to be sure that when we fill up we are not trashing the world's rainforests. A better, quicker solution would be to make our cars far more fuel-efficient. – GuardianThe campaign manager at Greenpeace, Andy Tait said:
If you're looking at the emissions from the transport sector, the first thing you need to look at is fuel efficiency and massively increasing it. That needs to come before you even get to the point of discussing which biofuels might be good or bad. – GuardianBiofuels are, on the surface, an elegant solution for the problem of vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. They offer Western countries a measure of independence from the Middle East’s oil and allow them to reduce their carbon emissions easily and without too much effort on the part of their populations. But, the reality of biofuels is very different. Although the carbon emissions from vehicles may be reduced, the overall global greenhouse gas emissions can be increased through a number of factors. The destruction of rainforests to make way for biofuel crops is not only increasing greenhouse gas emissions, it is causing irreversible ecological damage. The displacement of peasant farmers through intimidation and violence in some countries has left many thousands destitute. The use of food crops and conversion of farming land to biofuel production has lead to higher food prices, which we in the West can afford, but for many in the poorest communities, even basic food-stuffs are becoming unaffordable.
Biofuels need to be looked at again by Western governments, but this time they need to look beyond the short-term benefits for their countries and look at the bigger picture. There is a whole world beyond our borders, we need to remember that and start acting like citizens of Earth rather than citizens of our country. As Greenpeace have said, we can do a great deal more to reduce our use of vehicle fuels through increased fuel efficiency. Legislation to limit the capacity of car engines would go a long way to reducing vehicle emissions. It is incredible to me that we can make cars with engines of 1 litre or less, yet we still produce cars with 7 or 8 litre engines. What exactly are we doing? Where are our priorities? Surely, ensuring our future should be our number one priority right now? People need to start taking climate change seriously before it is too late.