Sustainable Biofuels: Oxymoron or Reality?

bio.jpg Biofuels have been both lauded for their eco-potential and criticized for their eco-inefficiency. Proponents of biofuels point to the possibilities of sequestering carbon through crop growth and energy independence from foreign petrol sources. Major criticisms against biofuels point to the high petroleum inputs required for production, the use of crops for fuel instead of feeding the global poor, and increased deforestation. Biofuel production has been blamed in the media for this year’s tortilla riots in Mexico, increasing pork prices in China, and the loss of tropical forests in Bali. To what extent is this true? Is it possible to produce biofuels sustainably? These are the questions that Ralph Simms (of the International Energy Agency) asked in a recent post on His remarks are based on the recently created Sustainable Biofuels Consensus, the outcome of a collaboration of biofuel experts that convened in late March 2008 to assess the state of the field.

Simms calls for a renewed perspective on biofuel production. He believes that we must look at the overall context in which biofuel production takes place to understand current developments, rather than scapegoat biofuels exclusively. Simms writes, “It is true that the increased production of biofuels has distorted some commodity prices and therefore contributed to recent price increases in grains and vegetable oils. However other factors, such as recent droughts, low food stocks and surging demand for meat and milk products in Asia, have probably played a far greater role. The higher world energy prices have also pushed up the costs of food-crop production (including fertilizers), processing, and distribution.”
Rather than write-off biofuel potential, Simms believes that we need a reassessment of the field in order to facilitate sustainable production. He admits that there are cases of “bad” biofuel production that increase carbon output overall. However, there are also instances of “good” biofuel production that increase environmental integrity and support local communities in a fair manner. So, how can we get more “good” biofuel in the market?
Simms suggests:
1- An international standard for biofuel production that emphasizes “trade, equity, sustainable development and energy security.”
2- Increased R&D to develop a cost-effective method of creating cellulosic (non-food feedstocks) biofuels.
3- The phasing out of subsidies for “less-sustainable” biofuels and more incentives for second-generation production of ethanol and synthetic diesel and third-generation production from algae using advanced biotechnologies.
4- Increased production of flex-fuel vehicles and the development of plug-in hybrid vehicles with flex-fuel engines.
As we know, “techno-fixes” to climate change are rarely unproblematic. While it is easy for us to become excited and herald the advent of a new energy source as the key to current ecological problems, the reality is that there are usually unforeseen disadvantages that emerge as the technology develops and becomes adopted on a larger scale. To produce biofuels in mass quantities may not be the most earth-friendly option, unless second- and third-generation biofuels advance in a timely manner. On the other hand, when biofuels are produced locally for local production, as in the case of recycled vegetable oil biofuel production, they have a higher environmental utility.
As more governments and firms aim to position themselves as advocates of sustainability, biofuel adoption has been widely embraced. Recent developments show, however, that it is important to revaluate those policies to redirect biofuel production in the most beneficial way possible.

Shannon Arvizu, Ph.D., is a clean tech educator and cutting-edge consultant for the auto industry. You can follow her test drives in the cars of the future at