A new study led by Switzerland’s Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) demonstrates that biofuel’s environmental impact may be greater than previously thought. In fact, according to the research only a few biofuels are overall more environmentally friendly than petrol.
In the recent years interest in biofuels has enormously increased. Since we are all still searching for our holy grail of energy that can take us safely through the 21st century, lots of potential biofuel sources have been reviewed. More recently the impact of biofuel production on food and land has come to our attention. The new study led by EMPA gives an up-to-date picture of the ecobalance of various biofuels and their production processes. The first worldwide ecobalance study of its kind was also carried out by EMPA in 2007. The new study came to a similar conclusion as in 2007: while most biofuels can claim to produce fewer greenhouse gases, the cost is “more growth-related pollution for land used for agriculture”, e.g. too much acid in the soil and polluted (over-fertilised) lakes and rivers. The “green” alternative often seems to merely replace one set of environmental problems with another.
The results of the research vary a lot from place to place, but much of it has to do with changing land-use patterns, the use of fertilizer, and the clearing of virgin forest to grow crops. In 2007 the EMPA researchers underestimated the effects of changes to natural areas on the greenhouse gas balance. The current study now shows that biofuels from deforested areas usually emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. This also applies to indirect land usage changes if existing agricultural land is used for the first time for biofuel production and, as a consequence, forested areas have to be cleared in order to maintain the existing foodstuff or animal feed production.
According to the research only a few biofuels have an overall better ecobalance than petrol, especially biogas from residues and waste materials, which depending on the source material, impact on the environment as much as 50% as petrol can. Methane from wood chips made in Switzerland appears a good choice as well as methane from sludge (also made in Switzerland). And within the biofuel group, ethanol-based fuels tend to have a better ecobalance than those with an oil base; however, the results are very much dependent on the individual method of manufacture and the technology.