• Biofuels reports: separating the good from the bad and the ugly

    The worst biofuels can emit 2000% more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, while the best can genuinely cut down on emissions. Those are two conclusions of a new United Nations report, one of several papers published in the last month that reaffirm that only certain biofuels can be environmentally beneficial – and only then if produced in certain ways.

    The UNEP study looks not just at which biofuel crops are good and bad, but also the conditions for biofuels production. Compiled by UNEP’s International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, it says one of the best biofuel options is using wastes and residues as this offers a way out of the land-use dilemma, but it also looks at the worst example – biodiesel from palm oil grown in tropical peatland forests cleared for fuel-producing purposes – which records the eye-catching 2000% figure.

    The study also reinforces a point made for several years but not often highlighted – that generating electricity at power stations using wood, straw and other crop or waste material is ‘generally more energy-efficient and also offsets more emissions than converting biomass to liquid fuels’.

    A Commission statement said the report’s findings are ‘already integrated into EU biofuels policy’, but that claim is effectively thrown into doubt by another report launched this month by T&E and five other Brussels-based NGOs.

    ‘Biofuels: handle with care’ is an analysis of EU biofuels policy with several recommendations for action. Among them are that the EU should scrap its energy-based target for biofuels in transport and replace it with a greenhouse gas reduction target; and that an absolute priority is to include estimates for the carbon impact of indirect land-use change.

    The impact of biofuels on the overall use of land is a central feature of a paper by Jerry Melillo published last month in Science magazine. Melillo says growing biofuel crops can lead to both displaced food crops and extra fertiliser which can release the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. He says CO2 emissions from land clearance might reduce satisfactorily by mid-century, but NO2 emissions are unlikely to.

    Another paper in Science magazine, from Tim Searchinger, says the rules for assessing compliance with the Kyoto protocol are biased in favour of biofuels, because they automatically count all biomass as ‘carbon neutral’ without taking emissions from land cleared to grow biomass crops into account.

    Credits for worst biofuels?

    Millions of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) credits could be created after the CDM executive board approved a new methodology for producing biodiesel from crops grown specifically for fuel. The credits would be based on biofuels from plantations established on degraded lands, but environmental groups are concerned that there is no definition of ‘degraded land’.

    This loophole could mean palm oil produced on deforested and drained peatlands – the UNEP’s ‘2000% worse than fossil fuels’ scenario – could qualify for CDM credits. Indirectly, this could also create incentives for unspoilt land to be deforested and degraded.