You may have heard about fuel made from algae or used cooking oil. But do you remember when the biofuel discussion centered around corn ethanol and vegetable oils?
In transport biofuels will out-power all electric energy by 2050. Cleaner fuels are an organic solution to Earth’s climate catastrophe. However, they need to be produced sustainably to count as green solutions.
First Generation of Biofuels
Biofuels are made from organic matter available today and processed into fuel. Fossil fuels are actually also made from organic matter. Only fossil fuel organic matter has been dead in the ground for thousands of years and requires dirty geological processes for extraction.
Biofuels don’t require dirty extraction, plus they burn cleaner. This first generation of biofuels are made from foody sources, like starch, sugar, and virgin vegetable oils.
The problem with these resources is that their stages of processing had negative environmental impacts. Flightnook uses the term cleaner fuels to demonstrate we reject first generation biofuels as a solution.
Types of Biofuels
Ethanol is the most used biofuel in the world, made, for example, from sugarcane in Brazil and corn in the United States.
The United States started experimenting with ethanol as a green fuel alternative in 2005, responding to a sharp rise in oil prices and growing public awareness of climate change. In fact, since then United States has required at least 10% ethanol (E10) in American gas tanks.
Through the 2007 Clean Energy Act, the United States Congress it subsidized ethanol producers to ramp up alternative fuel development.
In Europe biodiesel is the most common biofuel. France and Germany are the largest producers and the EU Commission of Energy incentivizes biodiesel production and usage to transition Europe away from fossil energy. Biodiesel typically uses rapeseed or sunflower seed oil as feedstocks.
Do First Generation Biofuels Combat Climate Change?
Fossil fuel extraction, processing, and combustion are all dirty processes which output massive amounts of CO2 and other warming greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide and methane. This first generation of biofuels circumvented oil rigs and deepwater drilling because they rely on feedstock crops.
But biofuels can decrease greenhouse gas emissions effectively only if each stage of their production has a lower environmental impact than fossil fuels.
The early 2000’s saw a boom in biofuels like corn ethanol and biodiesel. They were thought of as carbon neutral because the greenhouse gases they emit are roughly equal to the CO2 necessary for photosynthesis of the next cycle of crop growth. Or at least, that was the sell.
If American farmers switch from food crops to fuel crops then food crops must be found elsewhere. This would encourage a massive clearing of forests and grasslands around the world and release great amounts of CO2. The study found the global effects of this indirect land use change (ILUC) made the climate impact of corn ethanol higher than that of fossil fuels.
Since then Vox has revisited the subject to find it’s hard to pinpoint if corn ethanol is better or worse than fossil fuels. It depends how modellers count indirect emissions. They argue the only way to make corn ethanol cleaner was either by increasing crop yields by optimizing land for all seasons or displacing meat production.
The current US administration continues to argue that corn-based ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions 39-43% on a life cycle assessment. This is not how we see the future of biofuels.
Europe also faced pushback against use of palm oil as a feedstock for biodiesel. Palm oil was an early choice because of its high crop density. To give you an idea, palm can produce 38% of the world’s vegetable oil on 5% of the world’s vegetable oil farmland.
But harvesting palm oil means clearing large areas of rainforest in Indonesia– where palm oil production the largest force behind deforestation. Greenhouse gases released in clearing for palm oil plantations are massive because the forests are high-carbon land.
The World Wildlife Fund and other environmental organizations ran dozens of campaigns against the use of palm oil. We agree, it doesn’t make sense to lessen dependence on fossil fuels for a solution that deforests, dispenses with biodiversity, and displaces indigenous people.
Here’s a good resource to distinguish what other brands continue to use palm oil–just another way to reduce your carbon footprint.
Initial usage of biodiesel comes from the late 19th century in Germany when both ethanol and peanut oil were used to power early combustion engines.
What Follows First Generation Biofuels
First generation biofuels rely on feedstocks that have negative climate impacts through indirect land use change, water usage, and
Now there are regulatory bodies watching to ensure green alternatives are produced in sustainable and scalable ways. An article by Hannah Walker of Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) outlines some of the rating criteria.
Biofuel is only as sustainable as the environmental impact of its stages and its indirect effects. We have to rely on other means to make energy that do not follow the well worn trajectory of bushel to barrel.
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