August 21, 2007 In an effort to prevent an impending energy crisis, industries are considering various alternative energy sources with which to continue generating power whilst reducing environmental impacts. Biofuels have become a recent topic of discussion within the transport sector with alternatives to diesel appearing at the petrol bowser, but some experts are warning that biofuels may do more harm than good.

As biofuels produce 75 per cent less carbon dioxide this is seemingly a viable and environmentally sound alternative. However, researchers at the University of Leeds and the World Land Trust have voiced concern that growing biofuel crops to make eco-friendly car fuel could actually be more harmful to the environment than the conventional fuels they are replacing.


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The group is concerned that large areas of land in the developing world are being cleared to grow crops such as sugar cane and palm oil to service the energy consumption needs of our gas guzzling culture. These crops are being converted to biofuels which ostensibly produce less carbon dioxide than conventional transport fuels. What the scientists have found is that up to nine times as much carbon dioxide will be emitted by biofuels compared to conventional petrol and diesel because biofuel crops are typically grown on land which is burnt and reclaimed from tropical forests.

One of the reasons land is being cleared to make way for these new crops is due to our current land usage being primarily dedicated to the farming of livestock and the growth of crops to feed that livestock, leaving little remaining for alternative energy crops. Unless the whole Western world suddenly develops a severe case of vegetarianism we will not be able to satisfy biofuel demand without clearing more land.

Study co-author Dominick Spracklen of the School of Earth and the Environment at the University of Leeds says that if you are concerned with reducing your carbon emissions then biofuels are not the way to go. “In fact it can have a perverse impact elsewhere in the world. The amount of carbon that is released when you clear forests to make way for the biofuel crop is much more than the amount you get back from growing biofuels over a 30-year period,” said Spracklen.

He also raises an important point about ethical consumerism and consumption in general, arguing that by using these fuels you “are turning a blind eye to what's happening around the world and that in fact, you could be making things much worse.”

Spracklen says that conserving existing forests and savannahs and restoring forests and grasslands is a better way to help save the planet. Any progress must go hand-in-hand with both a reduction in consumption and development of new energy sources. It remains clear that we need to employ alternatives to fossil fuels in energy production and part of the solution is to find sustainable ways of growing biofuel crops to utilize their energy.

The report focuses on crops that are typically grown on land which is burnt and reclaimed from tropical forests, but advances are also being made in terms of deriving biofuels from Cellulosic biomass – these rely on more sustainable sources including perennial grasses and plant wastes that don't compete with food crops. It is arguable that the development of this kind of technology would have a positive impact on de-forestation, but the clear message from the report is that a holistic, broad approach needs to be taken when pursuing “sustainability” for the world’s resources.