The Big, the Bad and the Biofuels

At the recent meeting of Friends of Trees held in Barcelona, Vandana Shiva made some interesting comments about biofuels, which lead us to wonder why we don't see more about it even here on Treehugger. She said that it takes more energy to produce 1 litre of biofuels than the energy that is given by that same litre and that . Coming from this renowned physicist, ecologist, seed activist and eco-feminist we thought we should look further into the topic. Not coincidentally, later on during the conference a Spanish NGO called Debt Watch passed out a one page flyer that answers "5 questions about biofuels or agrofuels."

In short here is what they say (they also provide references which you can see on their website ):1. Are agrofuels clean and do they protect the environment?
All of the agrochemicals and the petroleum necessary to produce and transport biofuels contaminate air, soil and water adding to the greenhouse effect. Numerous studies show that the energy balance for these crops is negative.

2. Don't agrofuels imply deforestation?
In Brasil alone the deforestation of 80 million hectares of Amazon forest is planned. When the organization calculated the deforestation (for cutting and burning) the total emissions per unit of palm oil is approximately double that of gasoline.

3. Do agrofuels aid in rural development?
In the tropics 100 hectares used for family agriculture generates 35 jobs, where as for palm oil and sugar cane only 10 jobs are created, eucalyptus 2, soy 1.5. Small land owners cannot access loans and do not own enough land that would make the production of biofuels worthwhile. Hundred of thousands of farmers and indigenous people have been displaced in Latin America.

4. Won't agrofuels cause hunger and thirst?
The demand last year for corn to produce ethanol caused an increase in the price of this crop, as well pig-farmers noted the rising cost of grain needed to make feed (soy, corn and barley) along with rising costs of rice and wheat. The millions of people suffering from hunger are rising in number while we are using grain to produce fuel.

5. Are second generation agrofuels within our reach?
The flyer notes that industrial processes are being studied (as we know) to obtain ethanol from cellulose, which would eliminate the use of grains to create biofuels.

George Monbiot also tackled the issue in recent issue of The Guardian and we covered it in March. He also warned of the social, economic and environmental impacts of biofuels. After searching life cycle assessments of biofuels we found there are varying views remembering that LCA is generally limited to environmental impacts and rarely incorporates social or economic aspects.

It seems this issue will be an ongoing one, so before we can give thumbs up or thumbs down on biofuels more investigation needs to happen. Beyond all of this talk about biofuels are we really just avoiding the real issue of reducing consumption and our dependence on vehicular motion? Walk, ride your bike, take your skateboard, and if need be use a car-sharing program — get rid of your addiction to the automobile. Isn't that where the real changes need to be made before we consider alternative fuels? Biofuels are obviously not going to be the solution unless properly managed. It is a sustainable development issue: environment, economics and society are all being hurt by the current race to create biofuels. Check out the Debt Watch website if you are a Spanish-speaker or our coverage of Monbiot's article. Inform yourself about biofuels and tell us what you think. Good, bad or ugly? Read the full flyer in Spanish (sorry English-speakers!)here. Image credit: The Age

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