Biofuels: An Eco-Friendly Alternative to Fossil Fuels?

While biofuels, such as ethanol, are often touted as being environmentally friendly and renewable, they have many negative consequences that more than make up for their benefits, says Rachel Smolker, co-director of Biofuelwatch

Biofuels: An Eco-Friendly Alternative to Fossil Fuels?

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DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.

When he was in office, the United States President Barack Obama touted biofuels as an important tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change. Today some governments continue to tout biofuels as an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Earlier this year, for example, the French government of Emmanuel Macron gave the go ahead for a biorefinery owned by oil company Total, a move that prompted considerable criticism. Macron’s government gave the go ahead despite a European Parliament decision to ban palm oil imports by 2021.

So are biofuels, in fact, an effective alternative for combating climate change? Now here to discuss this with us is Rachel Smolker. Rachel is co-director of Biofuel Watch, an international organization that does research and that works to raise awareness of the impacts of large scale bio-energy. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. She joins us today from Vermont. Thank you very much for coming on The Real News, Rachel.

RACHEL SMOLKER: Thank you for having me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So Rachel, I’d like to start with the basics. For the benefit of our audience members who aren’t particularly well versed in the fundamentals of biofuels, what are the principal biofuels in usage today?

RACHEL SMOLKER: Right. Well, the bulk of liquid biofuels that are in use today, especially in the United States, for example, is corn ethanol, and then sugarcane ethanol from Brazil. And then you know, there’s biodiesel, which is produced mostly from soya and from palm oil. But then there’s also solid biofuels. Sometimes the terminology is used differently by different people. But burning biomass for electricity production, for the most part, and heat, usually involves burning wood.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So that sounds like a fairly diverse range of biofuels. Can you respond to the argument, taking into account the differences between these various types of biofuels, that they are an effective tool for combating climate change?

RACHEL SMOLKER: Right. Well, I think public opinion especially has really shifted over the decade or so that I’ve been working on this issue as co-director of Biofuel Watch. And you know, corn ethanol, when the mandates were first put in place, there was a lot of support. And also there was a lot of support for biomass, burning wood for electricity and heat, including from environmental organizations. But as time has passed, people have understood better the consequences of a large new demand for products of the land and water, if you will.

So the amount of land area that’s required for virtually any bioenergy crop, or trees, is very, very much greater than it is for fossil fuels. And so the impacts mostly have to do with land use, and in some cases those impacts are not- the direct impacts, for example, increased fertilizer use or increased water demand, or displacement of production from one place to another, which is an indirect, often an indirect impact that can sort of have a domino effect throughout the entire world, actually, because some of the trade in, say, vegetable oils and commodity crops like corn and soy are globally traded commodities, and impacts that have to do with the price and the trade in those commodities have very broad implications on land use. So that’s a big part of it, is the land use issue.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So let’s drill down a little bit in this whole notion of land use. So let’s suppose a palm oil company levels a massive forest and replaces it with palm oil, with palm trees to generate palm oil. How is that having an adverse impact on the climate crisis, particularly because a layperson like myself would look about that and say, well, we’re replacing trees with a different type of tree. Why is that a negative in terms of greenhouse gas emissions?

RACHEL SMOLKER: Yes. Well, I mean, for one thing, of course a very rich, diverse forest such as those in Indonesia and Malaysia where palm oil is grown has so much more diversity. And biodiversity is generally correlated with carbon storage. And also the soils themselves which usually contain, you know, a huge, huge reservoirs of carbon. So when you disturb the soils and cut down the biodiverse forest and disturb the soils to such an extent that a lot of that carbon is emitted, and all of the carbon that was stored in the forest is emitted, and you’re replacing it with something that is a industrial monoculture, and you know does not provide habitat for the same kind of biodiversity and has a lot of consequences for the soil- and also for water. Water is always a big factor in cutting down natural forests, has a huge impact on the hydrology of the forests.

So you know, there’s a number of different aspects to doing that, and what the climate impacts are. And it’s really key to understand that, you know, a tree plantation, an industrial monoculture tree plantation, be it for biofuels, palm oil, or for the pulp industry, for example, is a very different thing from a natural biodiverse forest in terms of climate, and also biodiversity.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So in light of these environmental realities that you’re talking about, what do you think accounts for the fact that some governments- for example the French government, which I mentioned at the outset- continue to suggest or be of the view that biofuels remain an effective tool for combating climate change? What’s going on here?

RACHEL SMOLKER: Yeah, well, this has been the dilemma for quite a long time in spite of, you know, for example, a vast scientific literature showing the many different negative impacts are on climate, on biodiversity, on human rights, et cetera, from expanding bioenergy. The policies remain in place. And the main reason for that is that there aren’t a lot of viable alternative to fossil fuels that are out there. And so governments and policymakers find themselves with their back against the wall a bit if they, even if they do understand that these biofuels might not be the environmentally most sound. There aren’t a whole lot of options for them.

So we see- and it’s complicated, too. For example, we see that a lot of big coal plants are now coal firing wood with coal, and that is subsidised as renewable energy. And so it’s that thing of, you know, stranded assets, as well. The industries, fossil fuel industries are wanting to be able to keep their facilities operating. And in transportation there are very few ways to make liquid fuels that can be used for the, you know, for automobiles for trucking, for shipping, and for aviation. So there are, there just aren’t a lot of other options. And so that’s where the rubber hits the road, you know, and policymakers really are in many ways, even when they’re aware of the problems, they don’t feel that they have any alternative, really.

So we see, for example, coming out of the recent COP climate meeting, we see that, you know, a lot of countries coming together under a biofutures platform saying that they’re going to enable a bioeconomy which will make not only liquid transportation fuels, but also bioplastics and biomaterials and a whole slew of other products out of living biomass, as opposed to fossilised biomass. You can, you can make a lot of the things that you could make from petroleum out of living biomass. But of course it’s a dangerous equation.

I think one thing people often don’t realise is that what is supported as renewable energy in, say, Europe and the United States in particular, out of the entire energy demand or production only about 10 or 12 percent is renewables. And of that 10 and 12 percent slice of the pie, if you break that down, about half of that is actually bioenergy. So about half of what is considered renewable energy is actually biofuels, and burning biomass for electricity and heat. We are currently only providing maybe 3 percent of our liquid transport fuels from biofuels, and yet we are, I think most people, pretty aware of the many different impacts being, you know, expanding corn production and the impacts on biodiversity in the Midwest, impacts on the market price of corn that have had effects on food prices around the globe, land grabs that have happened in different places, investors moving in and buying up land and pushing the entire market for farmland costs up.

So there are many, many different impacts, and I think people are increasingly aware of those, but at the same time not sure what other options there are.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: I’d like to talk to you about that, other options. In closing, you know, if biofuels are not a sensible land use policy, the promotion of biofuels, what do you think the priorities of our government should be in terms of land usage?

RACHEL SMOLKER: Well, in terms of land usage, I mean, we are in a biodiversity crisis. And we really need to focus on protecting remaining ecosystems and restoring those that have already been destroyed, to the extent that we are able to do that. All of that is, of course, really good for climate. It’s also really good for water and hydrology, and so on. And then on top of that, you know, I think it’s not only just an issue of land use, it’s an issue of recognizing that there are many other options for where we can put our attention.

Biofuel Watch has just released a report where we looked at cellulosic biofuels, which are a particular class within the renewable fuel standard, and that are made from basically the woody parts of plants. And for a long time people have said, well, we understand that making biofuels out of food is problematic, but if we make them out of these other non-food products then those will be better and they’ll be better for the climate. But in fact, no matter what you’re doing, it requires land, and underlying land and water and fertilizer, and so on. So they’re still problematic, and on top of that the technologies just haven’t been successful.

So we keep pouring money into it. And we’ve poured billions of dollars into developing the technologies to produce these cellulosic biofuels. And we continue to do so, even though they’re essentially nonexistent. There’s a couple of facilities that have been able to scale up production to, you know, an effective, efficient commercial level. But very, very few. And you know, all of that money, all of that research, all of that effort could have been focused instead, for example, on developing better public transportation systems, and on, you know, promoting more efficient vehicles and more efficient transportation methods. And really, when it comes down to it, also, we have to recognize that we just simply need to reduce the demand for energy overall, including bioenergy.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: We’ve been speaking to Rachel Smolker of Biofuel Watch about the wisdom of promoting biofuels as a tool for combating climate change and other environmental issues we confront. Thank you very much for joining us today, Rachel.

RACHEL SMOLKER: Thank you.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News.