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First Generation Biofuels: Good or Bad for Man and the Biosphere?

Hein, L. and Leemans, R. 2012. The impact of first-generation biofuels on the depletion of the global phosphorus reserve. Ambio 41: 341-349.
In the introduction to their study of the subject, Hein and Leemans (2012) write that "biofuels have been strongly promoted by many governments in order to reduce CO2 emissions and support the diversification of energy sources," while noting that "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 that "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 that "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 discus 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., 2007) 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, Rik Leemans and Lars 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 that "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."

Thus, it would appear that the dream of growing the fuel required to keep the engines of industry humming - as well as the engines that enable many of our leisure pursuits - really was, based on Hein and Leemans' analysis, simply too good to be true.

Additional References
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.

Crutzen, P.J., Mosier, A.R., Smith, K.A. and Winiwarter, W. 2007. N2O release from agro-biofuel production negates global warming reduction by replacing fossil fuels. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions 7: 11,191-11,205.

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.

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.

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

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.

Archived 25 September 2012