Biofuels are fuels we get from plants. Thus they are fuels derived from renewable sources.
They can replace the polluting diesel (through biodiesel) and gasoline (through ethanol) and play a significant role in reducing the CO2 emissions from these fossil transport fuels.
Well, then these biofuel thingies must be super good for the environment right? Or is there a catch?
Well, on the face of it, biofuels are indeed an eco-friendly option for transport fuels. But in reality, the story is not that straightforward.
On the one hand, biofuels indeed have the potential to significantly reduce net CO2 emissions. Even though biofuels emit about the same amount of CO2 per mile travelled as do fossil fuels, the feedstock (starting plant material) for the biofuel absorbed an equal amount of CO2 during its growth, and hence the net CO2 emitted owing to biofuel use is zero.
So, to the extent that it can reduce CO2 emissions, biofuels are indeed good for the environment.
But growing biofuel crops brings its own set of environmental and societal concerns.
- Food Vs Fuel – Some crops used for biofuel (corn, palm) are also used for food – so there is hence the Food Vs Fuel tussle. Given that replacing even a small percentage of our transport fuel with biofuels will need significant amounts of biofuel, the Food Vs Fuel concern is indeed critical.
- Effects on Local Environment – With some crops, their large scale growth could create challenges for land and water use for other crops in the region. Currently, biofuels can be economically derived only from a select set of crops, and growing these crops on a large scale in a particular region could have adverse effects on the growth of other native crops.
The above two societal & environmental challenges posed by biofuels need to be weighed against the greenhouse gas abatement benefits that biofuels provide, before one concludes on how environment friendly biofuels are.
In fact, it was precisely to overcome the above two challenges that the world started looking at what are called third generation biofuel feedstock. Prominent among the third generation biomass feedstock are algae. I was fortunate to have been part of the algae fuel sector for quite some time, and even today maintain a popular algae fuel online resource (Oilgae). The time for third generation biofuels has not arrived at, but I am hoping that they are not too far into the future.