Biofuel is not the answer

I saw an article today in the journal Energy and Environmental Science that claims to have the answer to the biofuel problem. Apparently agave, the plant that has provided a sugar alternative, rope, food, soap and tequila to centuries of human communities, has a bright new future as a bioethanol producer.

Biofuels are one of those contentious issues that everyone loves to argue about, so as to procrastinate the task of actually doing something about our increased fuel consumption. They’re wonderful in concept (plants take up CO2 from the atmosphere and then provide a ‘natural’, ‘renewable’, non-fossilised fuel source), but come with a whole suite of problems and unanswered questions, just like every other ‘quick-fix’ solution we’ve come up with in the past (and haven’t learnt from).

Proponents of biofuels love to push the “wood is a biofuel, and we’ve been burning that for centuries” argument to prove that they can’t be that bad. But wood-smoke creates its share of emissions and human health problems when it is burnt, so that pretty much stops that argument there. (Although burning wood is not nearly as bad for the long-term condition of the environment than many currently cultivated biofuel crops.)

And yes, using biofuels may stop us digging up land for coal or drilling for oil, but the biofuel industry will eventually use up just as much land to grow the necessary crops. When we are currently faced with obscene deforestation rates, famine in developing countries and a rapidly approaching global food shortage, clearing land and wasting space to grow biofuels is just ridiculous. Not to mention the water consumption to irrigate these crops, when many agricultural communities (such as those in the Murray Darling Basin) are now struggling to irrigate dedicated food crops.

Then there are other issues such as the potential of a biofuel crop species to become an invasive weed when grown in new environments, or the interruption of ecosystem function and disruption of ‘ecosystem services’ like pollination and pest control that can occur when land is changed into a biofuel-growing landscape (see the recent paper by Raghu et al. (2011) that discusses these issues).

Or, more importantly, the fact that we don’t actually know how biofuels will affect greenhouse gases yet. They could create more emissions than petrol, once land use changes, fertiliser and production emissions are taken into consideration, and we have no evidence yet of how the actual burning of biofuels will affect emissions.

When in doubt don’t. Otherwise known as applying The Precautionary Principle. We didn’t know that we were going to end up squabbling about carbon taxes, Kyoto, Copenhagen and climate change when we started burning coal ad infinitum back in the 1700s. So, how can we be so sure about biofuels now?

Now, back to the poor old agave plant. A news story on the ScienceAlert website crowed “Large scale farms of the agave plant … could be established in Australia’s arid inland as a novel and greenhouse-friendly solution to our transport fuel problems…”.

What about the impacts this will have on Australia’s arid inland? Our arid ecosystems are some of the most beautiful in the world and many are already listed as threatened or vulnerable because they hold some of the most rare species in the world. Arid/semi-arid areas have unique hydrological cycles that, if interrupted, will have devastating effects on the local ecosystems. Until now arid lands have been mostly free of our agricultural landscape engineering, except for extensive livestock grazing (and feral camel invasion) in some areas and the concentrated production of almonds and vegetables in the mallee bioregions.

Many of the species that live in these areas aren’t even documented, so if we develop these “large scale farms” in our arid ecosystems, for the production of a biofuel crop that we can’t even confirm will help the environment, many rare species could be lost before we even know they exist…and we will be the poorer for it.

Clearing land to grow biofuel crops will not solve our problems. (Surgarcane growing near Mt Warning, northern New South Wales)

© Manu Saunders 2011

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