On renewables and the need for compromise Part IV: biofuels – just bad or really bad?

So I have threatened you all with a post on biofuels for a while and I suppose it is time to actually give it to you. A quick look at the post title gives you a hint of my personal take on the topic, but a take unsupported by fact is a prejudice and I try not to be prejudiced so let me explain the basis for my opinion.

Before I go into details, I will point out once again that I am very much a pragmatist on many topics but am something of a sentimentalist with respect to preserving nature. Some people believe that “man was given dominion over nature”; I am not one of those people. I believe that nature has an inherent value and that the preservation of ecological diversity is a duty of humanity. A pragmatist would point out that some of our most important medical advances were based on compounds refined from ecological inputs but I would argue that even if we never got another drug from the rainforests, preserving their existence and genetic diversity is a duty humankind owes the planet. My initial education was in the field of ecology and I recognize that the preservation of habitat is one of the most important ways of protecting ecosystems and genetic diversity. So while I readily admit that on the surface biofuels sound promising “fuel that grows itself” “a great use for wood wastes” etc.. as I will describe herein, biofuels place too much stress on our environment for the gain they may provide in fighting climate change, their production pulls too many calories from the human food chain resulting in human misery and in many cases the productions of these biofuels actually exacerbates climate change.

The sad part is that in almost every case biofuels start out sounding like a good idea. The argument goes that biofuels made from waste biomass can give power without incurring an environmental cost and would be carbon neutral. The problem is that there is only so much waste biomass out there and power plants need a steady source of fuel. So in almost every case power producers need to rely not only on waste biomass but on virgin materials. As described in the linked Economist article, in Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand and in Germany, wood makes up 38% of non-fossil fuel power consumption. So where is this wood coming from? As described in the web posting at FSC-Watch in the southern US, NGOs have shown that the biggest US pellet producer, Enviva, is sourcing a high proportion of wood from the clear cutting of bottomland hardwood forests – some of the most biodiverse temperate forests and freshwater ecosystems worldwide. As for Canada we export about 1.3 million tons of wood pellets, most of it from boreal forests, to Europe every year. As for being “carbon neutral”, boreal forests grow slowly and model simulations reported in the journal Climate Change indicate that harvest of a boreal forest will create a “biofuel carbon debt” that takes 190–340 years to repay. So boreal forest wood is carbon neutral as long as you wait 3 centuries or so. To put it in perspective, in order to provide power for the factories and electric cars in Europe, Canadian and US forests are being cut down, often at an unsustainable rate, resulting in the destruction of valuable habitat and loss of ecosystem diversity. What is most ironic is that the power used by Greenpeace in Europe to fight the “tar sand’s” theoretical destruction of boreal forests is provided by the cutting down and grinding up of actual Canadian boreal forests.

So we have now established that power from biomass is a case of good intentions gone awry let’s look at ethanol in fuel. So much has been written on the topic that I will only present some highlights here. In the US they have a requirement for ethanol in fuel. This has resulted in pulling corn (the biggest source of US ethanol) out of the food chain. Specifically, as recounted in Forbes, in 2000 over 90% of the U.S. corn crop went to feed people and livestock, many in undeveloped countries, with less than 5% used to produce ethanol. In 2013, however, 40% went to produce ethanol, 45% was used to feed livestock, and only 15% was used for food and beverage. Put another way, enough calories to feed 500 million people were pulled out of the human food chain to run our vehicles? Let me say that again so it sinks in, the ethanol the US burns in its cars each year would feed 500 million people. The same Forbes article points out that Brazil is clear-cutting almost a million acres of tropical forest per year to produce biofuel and shipping much of the fuel all the way to Europe. The net effect is about 50% more carbon emitted by using these biofuels than using petroleum fuels. As for the argument that the ethanol helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a recent article in Science disputes that point. The article points out that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings in greenhouse gases, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years (so it will be carbon neutral in 167 years or so). The same article indicates that biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. Another article in Science indicates that converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food crop–based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels.

I don’t have the space to discuss palm oil here but suffice it to point out that an article at Ensia reports that in 1985, Indonesia had less than 2,500 square miles of palm oil plantation, 20 years later, they covered 21,621 square miles, and by 2025 the Indonesian government projects plantations will cover at least 100,000 square miles. As reported in another article at Ensia a typical palm oil lagoon (a necessary component of the oil palm extraction process) has the same annual climate impact as driving 22,000 passenger cars. Since there are upwards of 1000 of these plantations in Indonesia we are talking the equivalent of 220,000 passenger cars a year, this is in addition to the palm oil plantation’s biofuel carbon debt of almost a century.

Going back to my introduction, I care about maintaining the integrity of our shared ecological inheritance. Biofuels, when used in the manner they have been used to date, are destroying that inheritance. Each year hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests in South and Central America and Southeast Asia are being clear-cut or burned in order to free up space for the production of these supposedly “carbon neutral” fuels. Yet these fuels can only be considered carbon neutral if you look at them in century timescales. Unfortunately, very few organisms live lives marked by century timescales. In order to survive climate change, ecosystems need resiliency and the destruction of habitat reduces resiliency and increases the likelihood of ecological collapse in degraded ecosystems. Moreover, moving the calories used in biofuels out of the human food-chain has resulted in food scarcity, increased costs for food and a reduction in the availability of inexpensive food available for food aid. Once again well-meaning, but scence-blind, activists need to be educated on what their slogans are actually accomplishing, because it is neither ecologically sustainable nor does it decrease Tyndall gas concentrations in our atmosphere.

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18 Responses to On renewables and the need for compromise Part IV: biofuels – just bad or really bad?

  1. PoCoTex says:

    Dear Chemist in Langley (BC) –

    As you would likely surmise, much controversy surrounds the concept of
    man's God-granted dominion over the earth. However, I liken that
    “dominion” being a people manager in an office. A manager can be, by his
    approach to people management, a tyrant, a bully, or a back-stabber.
    He might not care less about the people of whom he is in charge and
    essentially create utter chaos with virtually no morale amongst his

    On the other hand, he can set an example of being
    trust-worthy, kind, firm, and consistent, thus creating an
    atmosphere (pun intended) of prospering and effective

    An analogous scenario can be easily applied to the
    responsibility that God gave to man, that is, to take
    care of His creation and to make it prosper.

    Since man's rebellion against God, man has many times
    – not always, but many times – also turned his back to taking care of God's creation, using and abusing it for self-survival and

    This applies to all humans, including environmentalists, not just
    “greedy” capitalists.

    Thus, since I see typical human behaviour in the Bible,
    I take God's assignment to man for dominion over His
    creation as true.

    If our home – earth – was indeed created by a personal God and
    He gave it to us to have “dominion” over it, then we'd better
    do a good job since the Boss might very well return and be quite
    unhappy with our handling of it.

    And I don't think we want to mess with God.


  2. thepeplspro says:



  3. A very well-reasoned article, Langley Chemist – thank you!


  4. This is very good blog.

    Ref the post, I suggest you study ethanol from sugar cane in Latinamerica. Later you can tell us what you think and we can discuss it further.


  5. Unknown says:

    Supposing that there is a god or several gods (in form of substance). And supposing that the Bible is more to be reveredthat, say, the Popol-Vuh, the Quran, the Upanishads or whatever “sacred books of knowledge” (maybe the writings of L. Ron Hubbard?).
    For us atheists/agnostics in the sense of Richard Dawkins', it doesn't matter: this comment seems spurious and intractable.


  6. PoCoTex says:

    You forget that the Bible says that God worked to create everything around us and he worked to create each one of us, thus instilling his value in each one of us humans and everything around us. He “rested” on the seventh day from all his work, remember?

    Every human being, no matter what he looks like or what his station in life is, has God's value instilled in him. We thus treat others accordingly.

    If a personal God does not exist, then no one worked to create you and no one put any value in you by virtue of his work.

    Thus, you and a pile of dirt have the same value and other humans can thus treat you in the same way as they do a pile of dirt.

    Thus, anyone can enslave you or treat you like so much garbage and not be the least bit concerned about it. Is that acceptable to you?


  7. Leo Harvey says:

    You say that Canada's forests are being cut down “often at an unsustainable rate” yet several sources including the federal government report that forest cover in Canada has remained virtually unchanged for the past two decades at roughly 30% of the total landmass in Canada.



  8. Blair says:

    You are correct, overall management has been good. But I am very specific in my language because each forest has to be viewed in isolation. West Coast old growth forests have been essentially logged out, resulting in a loss of an important ecological niche. Similarly US East Coast lowlands hardwood forests are similarly challenged. By only looking at the big picture the ecologically important smaller pictures are often missed. So yes, I was correct in saying that some forests are being harvested often at an unsustainable rate.


  9. The biggest issue with BIO-FUELS is the return on energy invested or ROEI.

    With Oil it is and has always been 8:1
    With Bio-fuels it is 1.1 :1

    One hell of a difference particularly in light of your comments regarding the amount of food that is taken out of the food chain to make said fuel.

    Kiefer on BioFuels is an excellent detailed report which Capt. (US Navy) Kiefer wrote.


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  14. m88 links says:

    Hi, this weekend is nice for me, as this time i am reading this wonderful educational post here
    at my house.


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