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Biofuels (Miscellaneous) -- Summary
Enough serious work has been conducted on the growing, harvesting, and processing of the raw materials that can be transformed into biofuels to indicate they are essentially useless when it comes to doing what they are supposed to do, which is to lead to less anthropogenic-induced CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. They have also been shown to harm the land they are grown on, cost more than conventional fossil fuels, and are not as energy efficient (see Biofuels (Land and Water Concerns), Biofuels (Energy Inefficiencies), Biofuels (Economics), and Biofuels (Carbon Debt)). This Summary reviews reasons for rejecting biofuels on additional grounds.

According to Tsao et al. (2011), "accelerating biofuel production has been promoted as an opportunity to enhance energy security, offset greenhouse-gas emissions and support rural economies." However, they indicate that "air-pollutant emissions from biofuel production and combustion may have significant impacts on climate and air quality," and that "the change in vehicle emissions that would result from a large-scale conversion from gasoline to E85 (a blend of up to 85% ethanol with gasoline or another hydrocarbon) in the United States could have significant health consequences, by increasing tropospheric ozone concentrations," citing Jacobsen (2007). And they add that Hill et al. (2009) have also demonstrated that "the use of corn ethanol has higher health costs than gasoline."

Noting that that sugar-cane ethanol is one of the most widely used biofuels, and that Brazil is its largest producer, Tsao et al. developed a set of spatially and temporally explicit estimates of air-pollutant emissions-including volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter less than 10 and 2.5 Ám in diameter, sulfur oxides and carbon monoxide-over the entire life cycle of sugar-cane ethanol as produced in Brazil. This work revealed, in the words of the six scientists, that "even in regions where pre-harvest field burning has been eliminated on half the croplands, regional emissions of air pollutants continue to increase owing to the expansion of sugar-cane growing areas," plus the fact that "burning continues to be the dominant life-cycle stage for emissions." In addition, they say a comparison of their estimates of burning-phase emissions with satellite estimates of burning in the state of Sao Paulo suggests "sugar-cane field burning is not fully accounted for in satellite-based inventories, owing to the small spatial scale of individual fires," and they add "accounting for this effect leads to revised regional estimates of burned area that are four times greater than some previous estimates." As a result of these findings, Tsao et al. warn that biofuels may have larger impacts on human health "than previously thought."

Goklany (2011) proposed the artificially induced increase in biofuel demand adds to the global burden of death and disease, and he set out to calculate order-of-magnitude estimates in death and disease due to increased biofuel production. The methodology used by Goklany included: (1) obtaining estimates of the increase in the current headcount for absolute poverty in the developing world due to increased biofuel production, (2) developing the relationships (or "coefficients of proportionality") between the poverty headcount on the one hand, and the global burden of death and disease attributable to "diseases of poverty" on the other hand, and (3) applying the coefficients developed in step 2 to the increase in poverty from step 1 to estimate the increases in death and disease from the increase in biofuel production.

Goklany estimated the poverty headcount increased by 36 million people in 2010 due to an increase in biofuel production over the 2004 level. He also reports the effect of biofuel production on death and disease amounted to 7.7 million deaths and 268 million lost DALYs (Disability-Adjusted Life Years) worldwide for 2004. Of these, more than 99.3% of the deaths and lost DALYs were in developing countries. Further, Goklany estimates the increase in the poverty headcount due to higher biofuel production between 2004 and 2010 implies 192,000 additional deaths and 6.7 million additional lost DALYs in 2010 alone. He thus concludes biofuel policies are retarding humanity's age-old battle against poverty and such policies may be deadlier than global warming.

Hein and Leemans (2012) write "biofuels have been strongly promoted by many governments in order to reduce CO2 emissions and support the diversification of energy sources," while noting "the large majority of bioethanol and biodiesel produced to date is 'first-generation' biofuel made from agricultural commodities using conventional technology," with the most important feedstocks for bioethanol being sugarcane, wheat, corn and sugarbeet, while for biodiesel they are rapeseed, soybean and palm oil. They further state "biofuel blending mandates and/or targets have now been established in Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand and the United States (Bringezu et al., 2009)," while noting "the U.S. Department of Energy targets to replace 30% of the fossil transportation fuel mix with biofuels and 25% of industrial organic chemicals with biomass-derived chemicals by 2025," as described by Ragauskas et al. (2006). However, the two Dutch researchers say there are a number of environmental concerns related to first-generation biofuel production that could complicate these grandiose plans; and they thus go on to discuss them.

One key issue is the fact, as they describe it, that "some biofuel production pathways increase rather than decrease greenhouse gas emissions, due to associated N2O emissions (Crutzen et al., 2008) or, in the case of palm oil cultivated on peatland soils, because of peat oxidation (Wicke et al., 2008)." They also say "there is concern regarding the impacts on food prices of using food crops for biodiesel and bioethanol production," citing the work of Rosegrant (2008), while further externalities are said by them to relate to "water use, pesticide use, nutrient runoff, and eutrophication of downstream water bodies," as illustrated by Leemans et al. (1996), Cushion et al. (2010) and de Vries et al. (2010). And last, but by no means least-seeing it is the primary focus of their article-Hein and Leemans contend that committing scarce phosphorus-containing nutrients to biofuel production "involves a trade-off between climate change mitigation and future food production."

Finally, after analyzing the many mandates and targets of biofuel-infatuated governments in considerable detail, and after judiciously weighing their potential pros and cons, Leemans and Hein (the chair and deputy chair, respectively, of Wageningen University's Environmental Systems Analysis Group in The Netherlands) conclude that "under current production systems, the negative impacts from biofuel production on phosphorus depletion appear to exceed the positive impacts on climate change mitigation." And, therefore, they state "current targets for biofuels," which they say can only be filled with first-generation biofuel sources, as described by the International Energy Agency (2008), "will affect future food security and may have a net negative impact on future welfare."

According to Ridley et al. (2012), "despite rapid growth in biofuel production worldwide, it is uncertain whether decision-makers possess sufficient information to fully evaluate the impacts of the industry and avoid unintended consequences," because, as they put it, "doing so requires rigorous peer-reviewed data and analyses across the entire range of direct and indirect effects." And the U.S. research team surmised that such an effort, or set of efforts, had not been made to this point in time.

In an effort to explore the subject in unprecedented breadth and depth, Ridley et al. therefore analyzed over 1,600 peer-reviewed articles published between 2000 and 2009 that addressed 23 biofuels-related topics within four thematic areas: environment and human well-being, economics, technology, and geography. As for their findings, the seven U.S. researchers (six of whom work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) report discovering that greenhouse gases, fuel production, and feedstock production were "well-represented topics in the literature," while "trade, biodiversity, and human health were not." And they note "gaps were especially striking across topics in the Southern Hemisphere, where the greatest potential socio-economic benefits, as well as environmental damages, may occur."

Ridley et al. conclude by reporting the research shortcomings they uncovered "could undermine the ability of scientific and economic analyses to adequately evaluate impacts and avoid significant unintended consequences," which may be associated with widespread biofuel production and utilization. Their cautionary conclusion would thus appear to suggest far too many countries may be rushing far too fast to implement expansive programs to produce massive quantities of many types of biofuels, all of which may be dangerous to do at this point in time.

Lastly, in a Policy Forum article in Science, Buyx and Tait (2011) state "climate change is predicted to impose increasing harms, in particular on those most disadvantaged," and they go on to state, in their very next sentence, that "thus, climate change mitigation is a vital common good."

With this declaration as the starting point of their discussion, the two academics approvingly note "mandatory targets for introduction and blending of biofuels have been introduced" by both the European Union and the United States, even though, as they acknowledge "there are serious concerns about negative effects on food security, the environment, and the rights of farmers and landholders in developing countries," after which-using various derivatives of the word ethics some 20-plus times-they strive to make the production and use of biofuels as palliative as possible. But they appear to have placed the cart before the horse in terms of the ethics of biofuels.

Is it ethical, for example, to impose mandatory targets on the creation and utilization of certain substances (biofuels) merely because the substances they are designed to replace (fossil fuels) are predicted to impose increasing harm on society? ... and especially when that prediction is challenged by numerous other scientists (Idso and Singer, 2009; Idso et al., 2013)? ... and even more so when the replacement substances are known to have a host of negative effects on such important things as food security, the environment, and the rights of farmers and landholders? ... and still more so when the goal is to reduce the atmospheric concentration of a substance that vastly improves the growth and water use efficiency-as well as a host of other beneficial properties (Idso and Idso, 2011; Idso et al., 2014)-of nearly all plant life on the planet?

It should be abundantly clear that before one discusses "ethics" in the context of Earth's climate and biosphere, one must first determine the validity (or not!) of the "predictions" that are being made by the IPCC and others. Is Earth's climate truly being impacted by the burning of fossil fuels in the host of negative ways they claim it is? Or is it not being so impacted? Likewise, it is necessary to determine if Earth's plants are truly being helped in the host of positive ways suggested by the hundreds of scientists who have conducted literally thousands of atmospheric CO2 enrichment studies of them. And until both of these fundamental sets of questions are satisfactorily answered, there is no basis to even consider the "ethics" of such things as the production and utilization of biofuels. Such determinations cannot be validly made without a sure knowledge of the undergirding-and demonstrable-scientific facts of the matter.

Bringezu, S., Schutz, H., O'Brien, M., Kauppi, L., Howarth, R.W. and McNeely, J. 2009. Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Assessing Biofuels. UNEP, Paris, France.

Buyx, A. and Tait, J. 2011. Ethical framework for biofuels. Science 332: 540-541.

Crutzen, P.J., Mosier, A.R., Smith, K.A. and Winiwarter, W. 2008. N2O release from agro-biofuel production negates global warming reduction by replacing fossil fuels. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 8: 389-395.

Cushion, E., Whiteman, A. and Dieterle, G. 2010. Bioenergy Development: Issues and Impacts for Poverty and Natural Resource Management. World Bank, Washington, DC, USA.

De Vries, S.C., van de Ven, G.W.J., van Ittersum, M.K. and Giller, K.E. 2010. Resource use efficiency and environmental performance of nine major biofuel crops, processed by first-generation conversion techniques. Biomass and Bioenergy 34: 588-601.

Goklany, I.M. 2011. Could Biofuel Policies Increase Death and Disease in Developing Countries? Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 16: 9-13.

Hein, L. and Leemans, R. 2012. The impact of first-generation biofuels on the depletion of the global phosphorus reserve. Ambio 41: 341-349.

Hill, J., Polasky, S., Nelson, E., Tilman, D., Huo, H., Ludwig, L., Neumann, J., Zheng, H. and Bonta, D. 2009. Climate change and health costs of air emissions from biofuels and gasoline. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 106: 2077-2082.

Idso, C.D. and Idso, S.B. 2011. The Many Benefits of Atmospheric CO2 Enrichment. Vales Lakes Publishing, Inc., Pueblo, Colorado, USA.

Idso, C.D, Carter, R.M., and Singer, S.F. (Eds.) 2013. Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science. Chicago, IL: The Heartland Institute.

Idso, C.D, Idso, S.B., Carter, R.M., and Singer, S.F. (Eds.) 2014. Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts. Chicago, IL: The Heartland Institute.

Idso, C.D. and Singer, S.F. (Eds.). 2009. Climate Change Reconsidered: 2009 Report of the Nongovernmental Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC). The Heartland Institute, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Jacobson, M.Z. 2007. Effects of ethanol (E85) versus gasoline vehicles on cancer and mortality in the United States. Environmental Science and Technology 41: 4150-4157.

Leemans, R., Van Amstel, A.R., Battjes, C., Kreileman, G.J.J. and Toet, A.M.C. 1996. The land cover and carbon cycle consequences of large-scale utilizations of biomass as an energy source. Global Environmental Change 6: 335-357.

Ragauskas, A.J., Williams, C.K., Davison, B.H., Britovsek, G., Cairney, J., Eckert, C.A., Frederick Jr., W.J., Hallett, J.P., Leak, D.J., Liotta, C.L.,Mielenz, J.R., Murphy, R., Templer, R. and Tschaplinski, T. 2006. The path forward for biofuels and biomaterials. Science 311: 484-489.

Ridley, C.E., Clark, C.M., LeDuc, S.D., Bierwagen, B.G., Lin, B.B., Mehl, A. and Tobias, D.A. 2012. Biofuels: Network analysis of the literature reveals key environmental and economic unknowns. Environmental Science and Technology 46: 1309-1315.

Rosegrant, M.W. 2008. Biofuels and Grain Prices: Impacts and Policy Responses. Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC, USA.

Tsao, C.-C., Campbell, J.E., Mena-Carrasco. M., Spak, S.N., Carmichael, G.R. and Chen, Y. 2011. Increased estimates of air-pollution emissions from Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol. Nature Climate Change 2: 53-57.

Wallenius, T., Larjavaara, M., Heikkinen, J. and Shibistova, O. 2011. Declining fires in Larix-dominated forests in northern Irkutsk district. International Journal of Wildland Fire 20: 248-254.

Wicke, B., Dornburg, V., Junginger, M. and Faaij, A. 2008. Different palm oil and production systems for energy purposes and their greenhouse gas implications. Biomass and Bioenergy 32: 1322-1337.

Last updated 27 August 2014