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The Impact of Food-for-Fuel: UK Study Weighs in on Biofuels

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Energy & Environment
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According to a study led by the United Kingdom’s Royal Academy of Engineering, biofuels can have a critical role to play in the mitigation of future climate change risks while sparking economic development in struggling rural regions. Wastes from agriculture, forestry, food processing and even from sewer systems demonstrate much potential to become a useful fuel. Nevertheless, there is one stubborn caveat: when it comes to producing fuel from crops, those biofuels’ long-term sustainability creates a huge question mark, and in fact, they could even generate a higher carbon footprint than fossil fuels.

The study evaluated a wide range of biofuel feedstocks and applied two life-cycle assessments in order to gauge their carbon footprints. Researchers also considered additional factors including these fuels’ costs of production and water requirements. In the case of the UK’s climate change goals, the study’s authors found that “first generation” biofuels (those produced from animal feed or food crops) can help meet greenhouse gas emissions goals – if they do not require more land at the expense of natural habitats such as forests, or are grown on lands that are already degraded.

But the same study found that oft-described “second generation” biofuels, such as those grown from dedicated energy crops like grasses, as well as those derived from wastes and residues, have an even greater potential to displace emissions from fossil fuels in the events these newer forms of fuels can scale. And in some cases, the continued use of fossil fuels and replanting of forests would be a more effective way to decrease carbon emissions than growing crops for biofuels.

This report comes three months after members of the European Parliament voted by an overwhelming margin to approve a resolution calling for the European Union to phase out the use of vegetable oils, especially palm oil, in biofuels by 2020. On that point, the Academy’s study concluded that while biodiesel derived from palm oil may generate only half the carbon footprint of conventional diesel, the loss of forests and peatlands can leave behind an even greater greenhouse gas emission impact – one that can range anywhere from three to 40 times higher than that generated by diesel derived from fossil fuels.

When it comes to weaning the UK away from fossil fuels in order to reduce emissions, the study points to the 16 million metric tons of domestic crop waste, forest residues such as sawdust, as well as other byproducts, which merit more research and development. In Britain, one consultancy, NNFCC, has estimated that green waste, agricultural straw and waste paper combined comprise over 80 percent of that waste. While those waste byproducts show the most potential for conversion into biofuels, the study also cedes that other uses such as power generation, composting and livestock bedding could compete with their use as feedstock for biofuels.

In the case of the UK’s climate change plan, the study suggests several recommendations, which together are a tall order as the country is currently led by a fragile coalition government that will be preoccupied with “Brexit” negotiations. Some suggestions are at a high-level, as in having smarter land-use planning that also integrate local ecosystem services. Rural areas that are currently struggling economically could also be primed to produce second-generation crops that can be churned into biofuels.

But in the rush to meet sustainability goals that are approaching in a few short years, the Academy also recommends that biofuels should be evaluated on metrics beyond their carbon footprint, as in water impacts, their effects on energy and food security and ways in which they could groom rural sustainable development. And since these second-generation biofuels are still struggling to scale, incentives that could increase these fuels’ production while lowering their costs should also be considered by the UK’s government.

“Second generation biofuels offer real prospects for the UK to make progress in reducing emissions from transport, particularly in sectors like aviation where liquid fuels are really the only option for the foreseeable future,” said Adisa Azapagic, Chair of the Academy’s working group on biofuels. “Our report shows that, with the right safeguards and monitoring, biofuels from waste in particular are well worth pursuing from a sustainability point of view and also provide business opportunities for development.”

Image credit: Neil Roger/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye