Issues relating to biofuels
There are various social, economic, environmental and technical issues with biofuel production and use, which have been discussed in the popular media and scientific journals. These include: the effect of moderating oil prices, the "food vs fuel" debate, poverty reduction potential, carbon emissions levels, sustainable biofuel production, deforestation and soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, impact on water resources, the possible modifications necessary to run the engine on biofuel, as well as energy balance and efficiency. The International Resource Panel, which provides independent scientific assessments and expert advice on a variety of resource-related themes, assessed the issues relating to biofuel use in its first report Towards sustainable production and use of resources: Assessing Biofuels. In it, it outlined the wider and interrelated factors that need to be considered when deciding on the relative merits of pursuing one biofuel over another. It concluded that not all biofuels perform equally in terms of their impact on climate, energy security and ecosystems, and suggested that environmental and social impacts need to be assessed throughout the entire life-cycle.
- 1 Social and economic impacts
- 2 Environmental impacts
- 3 Technical issues
- 4 Campaigns
- 5 Politics
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Social and economic impacts
Oil price moderation
The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2006 concludes that rising oil demand, if left unchecked, would accentuate the consuming countries' vulnerability to a severe supply disruption and resulting price shock. The report suggested that biofuels may one day offer a viable alternative, but also that "the implications of the use of biofuels for global security as well as for economic, environmental, and public health need to be further evaluated".
According to Francisco Blanch, a commodity strategist for Merrill Lynch, crude oil would be trading 15 per cent higher and gasoline would be as much as 25 per cent more expensive, if it were not for biofuels. Gordon Quaiattini, president of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, argued that a healthy supply of alternative energy sources will help to combat gasoline price spikes.
"Food vs. fuel" debate
Food vs fuel is the debate regarding the risk of diverting farmland or crops for biofuels production in detriment of the food supply on a global scale. Essentially the debate refers to the possibility that by farmers increasing their production of these crops, often through government subsidy incentives, their time and land is shifted away from other types of non-biofuel crops driving up the price of non-biofuel crops due to the decrease in production. Therefore, it is not only that there is an increase in demand for the food staples, like corn and cassava, that sustain the majority of the world's poor but this also has the potential to increase the price of the remaining crops that these individuals would otherwise need to utilize to supplement their diets. A recent study for the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development shows that market-driven expansion of ethanol in the US increased maize prices by 21 percent in 2009, in comparison with what prices would have been had ethanol production been frozen at 2004 levels. A November 2011 study states that biofuels, their production, and their subsidies as leading causes of agricultural price shocks. The counter-argument includes considerations of the type of corn that is utilized in biofuels, often field corn not suitable for human consumption; the portion of the corn that is used in ethanol, the starch portion; and the negative effect higher prices for corn and grains have on government welfare for these products. The "food vs. fuel" or "food or fuel" debate is internationally controversial, with disagreement about how significant this is, what is causing it, what the impact is, and what can or should be done about it.
Poverty reduction potential
Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute have argued that biofuels could help to reduce poverty in the developing world, through increased employment, wider economic growth multipliers and by stabilising oil prices (many developing countries are net importers of oil). However, this potential is described as 'fragile', and is reduced where feedstock production tends to be large scale, or causes pressure on limited agricultural resources: capital investment, land, water, and the net cost of food for the poor.
With regards to the potential for poverty reduction or exacerbation, biofuels rely on many of the same policy, regulatory or investment shortcomings that impede agriculture as a route to poverty reduction. Since many of these shortcomings require policy improvements at a country level rather than a global one, they argue for a country-by-country analysis of the potential poverty impacts of biofuels. This would consider, among other things, land administration systems, market coordination and prioritizing investment in biodiesel, as this 'generates more labour, has lower transportation costs and uses simpler technology'. Also necessary are reductions in the tariffs on biofuel imports regardless of the country of origin, especially due to the increased efficiency of biofuel production in countries such as Brazil.
Sustainable biofuel production
Responsible policies and economic instruments would help to ensure that biofuel commercialization, including the development of new cellulosic technologies, is sustainable. Responsible commercialization of biofuels represents an opportunity to enhance sustainable economic prospects in Africa, Latin America and impoverished Asia.
Soil erosion and deforestation
Large-scale deforestation of mature trees (which help remove CO2 through photosynthesis — much better than sugar cane or most other biofuel feedstock crops do) contributes to soil erosion, un-sustainable global warming atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, loss of habitat, and a reduction of valuable biodiversity (both on land as in oceans). Demand for biofuel has led to clearing land for palm oil plantations. In Indonesia alone, over 9,400,000 acres (38,000 km2) of forest have been converted to plantations since 1996. 
A portion of the biomass should be retained onsite to support the soil resource. Normally this will be in the form of raw biomass, but processed biomass is also an option. If the exported biomass is used to produce syngas, the process can be used to co-produce biochar, a low-temperature charcoal used as a soil amendment to increase soil organic matter to a degree not practical with less recalcitrant forms of organic carbon. For co-production of biochar to be widely adopted, the soil amendment and carbon sequestration value of co-produced charcoal must exceed its net value as a source of energy.
Some commentators claim that removal of additional cellulosic biomass for biofuel production will further deplete soils.
Impact on water resources
Increased use of biofuels puts increasing pressure on water resources in at least two ways: water use for the irrigation of crops used as feedstocks for biodiesel production; and water use in the production of biofuels in refineries, mostly for boiling and cooling.
In many parts of the world supplemental or full irrigation is needed to grow feedstocks. For example, if in the production of corn (maize) half the water needs of crops are met through irrigation and the other half through rainfall, about 860 liters of water are needed to produce one liter of ethanol. However, in the United States only 5-15% of the water required for corn comes from irrigation while the other 85-95% comes from natural rainfall.
In the United States, the number of ethanol factories has almost tripled from 50 in 2000 to about 140 in 2008. A further 60 or so are under construction, and many more are planned. Projects are being challenged by residents at courts in Missouri (where water is drawn from the Ozark Aquifer), Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas (all of which draw water from the non-renewable Ogallala Aquifer), central Illinois (where water is drawn from the Mahomet Aquifer) and Minnesota.
For example, the four ethanol crops: corn, sugarcane, sweet sorghum and pine yield net energy. However, increasing production in order to meet the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act mandates for renewable fuels by 2022 would take a heavy toll in the states of Florida and Georgia. The sweet sorghum, which performed the best of the four, would increase the amount of freshwater withdrawals from the two states by almost 25%.
Loss of biodiversity
Critics argue that expansion of farming for biofuel production causes unacceptable loss of biodiversity for a much less significant decrease in fossil fuel consumption. The loss of biodiversity also makes heavy dependence on biofuels very risky by reducing our ability to deal with blights affecting the few important biofuel crops. Food crops have recovered from blights when the old stock was mixed with blight resistant wild strains, but as biodiversity is lost to excessive agriculture, the possibilities for recovering from blights are lost.
Formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and other aldehydes are produced when alcohols are oxidized. When only a 10% mixture of ethanol is added to gasoline (as is common in American E10 gasohol and elsewhere), aldehyde emissions increase 40%. Some study results are conflicting on this fact however, and lowering the sulfur content of biofuel mixes lowers the acetaldehyde levels. Burning biodiesel also emits aldehydes and other potentially hazardous aromatic compounds which are not regulated in emissions laws.
Many aldehydes are toxic to living cells. Formaldehyde irreversibly cross-links protein amino acids, which produces the hard flesh of embalmed bodies. At high concentrations in an enclosed space, formaldehyde can be a significant respiratory irritant causing nose bleeds, respiratory distress, lung disease, and persistent headaches. Acetaldehyde, which is produced in the body by alcohol drinkers and found in the mouths of smokers and those with poor oral hygiene, is carcinogenic and mutagenic.
The European Union has banned products that contain Formaldehyde, due to its documented carcinogenic characteristics. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has labeled Formaldehyde as a probable cause of cancer in humans.
Brazil burns significant amounts of ethanol biofuel. Gas chromatograph studies were performed of ambient air in São Paulo Brazil, and compared to Osaka Japan, which does not burn ethanol fuel. Atmospheric Formaldehyde was 160% higher in Brazil, and Acetaldehyde was 260% higher.
Energy efficiency and energy balance
Production of biofuels from raw materials requires energy (for farming, transport and conversion to final product, and the production / application of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides), and has environmental consequences.
The energy balance of a biofuel (sometimes called "Net energy gain" and EROEI) is determined by the amount of energy put into the manufacture of fuel compared to the amount of energy released when it is burned in a vehicle. This varies by feedstock and according to the assumptions used. Biodiesel made from sunflowers may produce only 0.46 times the input rate of fuel energy. Biodiesel made from soybeans may produce 3.2 times the input rate of fossil fuels. This compares to 0.805 for gasoline and 0.843 for diesel made from petroleum. Biofuels may require higher energy input per unit of BTU energy content produced than fossil fuels: petroleum can be pumped out of the ground and processed more efficiently than biofuels can be grown and processed. However, this is not necessarily a reason to use oil instead of biofuels, nor does it have an impact on the environmental benefits provided by a given biofuel.
Studies have been done that calculate energy balances for biofuel production. Some of these show large differences depending on the biomass feedstock used and location.
To explain one specific example, a June 17, 2006 editorial in the Wall. St. Journal stated, "The most widely cited research on this subject comes from Cornell's David Pimental and Berkeley's Ted Patzek. They've found that it takes more than a gallon of fossil fuel to make one gallon of ethanol — 29% more. That's because it takes enormous amounts of fossil-fuel energy to grow corn (using fertilizer and irrigation), to transport the crops and then to turn that corn into ethanol."
Life cycle assessments of biofuel production show that under certain circumstances, biofuels produce only limited savings in energy and greenhouse gas emissions. Fertilizer inputs and transportation of biomass across large distances can reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) savings achieved. The location of biofuel processing plants can be planned to minimize the need for transport, and agricultural regimes can be developed to limit the amount of fertiliser used for biomass production. A European study on the greenhouse gas emissions found that well-to-wheel (WTW) CO2 emissions of biodiesel from seed crops such as rapeseed could be almost as high as fossil diesel. It showed a similar result for bio-ethanol from starch crops, which could have almost as many WTW CO2 emissions as fossil petrol. This study showed that second generation biofuels have far lower WTW CO2 emissions.
Other independent LCA studies show that biofuels save around 50% of the CO2 emissions of the equivalent fossil fuels. This can be increased to 80-90% GHG emissions savings if second generation processes or reduced fertiliser growing regimes are used. Further GHG savings can be achieved by using by-products to provide heat, such as using bagasse to power ethanol production from sugarcane.
Collocation of synergistic processing plants can enhance efficiency. One example is to use the exhaust heat from an industrial process for ethanol production, which can then recycle cooler processing water, instead of evaporating hot water that warms the atmosphere.
Biomass planting mandated by law (as in European Union) results in large quantities of biomass being transported to EU from Africa, Asia and Americas (Canada, USA, Brazil). For example in Poland as much as 85% of biomass used is imported from outside of EU, with single electric plant in Łódź importing over 7'000 tons of wood biomass from Republic of Komi (Russia) over distance of 7'000 kilometers on monthly basis.
T. A. Kiefer of the US Air Force Air War College, in a paper entitled "The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels", laid out factors that preclude biofuels from replacing petroleum as a national-scale transportation fuel. Kiefer states “The energy content of the final-product biofuel compared to the energy required to produce it proves to be a very poor investment, especially compared to other alternatives. In many cases, there is net loss of energy." He concludes “...pursuit of biofuels creates irreversible harm to the environment, increases greenhouse gas emissions, undermines food security, and promotes abuse of human rights." 
Solar energy efficiency
Biofuels from plant materials convert energy that was originally captured from solar energy via photosynthesis. A comparison of conversion efficiency from solar to usable energy (taking into account the whole energy budgets) shows that photovoltaics are 100 times more efficient than corn ethanol and 10 times more efficient than the best biofuel. However, photovoltaics produce electricity rather than storable, portable liquid hydrocarbon fuel, so they are largely irrelevant for powering the large existing fleet of vehicles and equipment having internal combustion engines. Also from the economic point of view, green plants are self-assembling organisms and therefore much cheaper to produce than photovoltaic cells.
Biofuels and other forms of renewable energy aim to be carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Carbon neutral means that the carbon released during the use of the fuel, e.g. through burning to power transport or generate electricity, is reabsorbed and balanced by the carbon absorbed by new plant growth. These plants are then harvested to make the next batch of fuel. Carbon neutral fuels lead to no net increases in human contributions to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, reducing the human contributions to global warming. A carbon negative aim is achieved when a portion of the biomass is used for carbon sequestration. Calculating exactly how much greenhouse gas (GHG) is produced in burning biofuels is a complex and inexact process, which depends very much on the method by which the fuel is produced and other assumptions made in the calculation.
The carbon emissions (carbon footprint) produced by biofuels are calculated using a technique called Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). This uses a "cradle to grave" or "well to wheels" approach to calculate the total amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted during biofuel production, from putting seed in the ground to using the fuel in cars and trucks. Many different LCAs have been done for different biofuels, with widely differing results. Several well-to-wheel analysis for biofuels has shown that first generation biofuels can reduce carbon emissions, with savings depending on the feedstock used, and second generation biofuels can produce even higher savings when compared to using fossil fuels. However, those studies did not take into account emissions from nitrogen fixation, or additional carbon emissions due to indirect land use changes. In addition, many LCA studies fail to analyze the impact of substitutes that may come into the market to replace current biomass-based products. In the case of Crude Tall Oil, a raw material used in the production of pine chemicals and now being diverted for use in biofuel, an LCA study  found that the global carbon footprint of pine chemicals produced from CTO is 50 percent lower than substitute products used in the same situation offsetting any gains from utilizing a biofuel to replace fossil fuels. Additionally the study showed that fossil fuels are not reduced when CTO is diverted to biofuel use and the substitute products consume disproportionately more energy. This diversion will negatively affect an industry that contributes significantly to the world economy, globally producing more than 3 billion pounds of pine chemicals annually in complex, high technology refineries and providing jobs directly and indirectly for tens of thousands of workers.
A paper published in February 2008 in Sciencexpress by a team led by Searchinger from Princeton University concluded that once considered indirect land use changes effects in the life cycle assessment of biofuels used to substitute gasoline, instead of savings both corn and cellulosic ethanol increased carbon emissions as compared to gasoline by 93 and 50 percent respectively. A second paper published in the same issue of Sciencexpress, by a team led by Fargione from The Nature Conservancy, found that a carbon debt is created when natural lands are cleared and being converted to biofuel production and to crop production when agricultural land is diverted to biofuel production, therefore this carbon debt applies to both direct and indirect land use changes.
The Searchinger and Fargione studies gained prominent attention in both the popular media and in scientific journals. The methodology, however, drew some criticism, with Wang and Haq from Argonne National Laboratory posted a public letter and send their criticism about the Searchinger paper to Letters to Science. Another criticism by Kline and Dale from Oak Ridge National Laboratory was published in Letters to Science. They argued that Searchinger et al. and Fargione et al. "...do not provide adequate support for their claim that biofuels cause high emissions due to land-use change. The U.S. biofuel industry also reacted, claiming in a public letter, that the "Searchinger study is clearly a "worst case scenario" analysis..." and that this study "relies on a long series of highly subjective assumptions...".
Modifications necessary to internal combustion engines
The modifications necessairy to run internal combustion engines on biofuel depend on the type of biofuel used, as well as the type of engine used. For example, gasoline engines can run without any modification at all on biobutanol. Minor modifications are however needed to run on bioethanol or biomethanol. Diesel engines can run on the latter fuels, as well as on vegetable oils (which are cheaper). However, the latter is only possible when the engine has been foreseen with indirect injection. If no indirect injection is present, the engine hence needs to be fitted with this.
A number of environmental NGOs campaign against the production of biofuels as a large-scale alternative to fossil fuels. For example, Friends of the Earth state that "the current rush to develop agrofuels (or biofuels) on a large scale is ill-conceived and will contribute to an already unsustainable trade whilst not solving the problems of climate change or energy security". Some mainstream environmental groups support biofuels as a significant step toward slowing or stopping global climate change. However, supportive environmental groups generally hold the view that biofuel production can threaten the environment if it is not done sustainably. This finding has been backed by reports of the UN, the IPCC, and some other smaller environmental and social groups as the EEB and the Bank Sarasin, which generally remain negative about biofuels.
As a result, governmental and environmental organizations are turning against biofuels made in a non-sustainable way (hereby preferring certain oil sources as jatropha and lignocellulose over palm oil) and are asking for global support for this. Also, besides supporting these more sustainable biofuels, environmental organizations are redirecting to new technologies that do not use internal combustion engines such as hydrogen and compressed air.
The "Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels" is an international initiative which brings together farmers, companies, governments, non-governmental organizations, and scientists who are interested in the sustainability of biofuels production and distribution. During 2008, the Roundtable is developing a series of principles and criteria for sustainable biofuels production through meetings, teleconferences, and online discussions.
The increased manufacture of biofuels will require increasing land areas to be used for agriculture. Second and third generation biofuel processes can ease the pressure on land, because they can use waste biomass, and existing (untapped) sources of biomass such as crop residues and potentially even marine algae.
In some regions of the world, a combination of increasing demand for food, and increasing demand for biofuel, is causing deforestation and threats to biodiversity. The best reported example of this is the expansion of oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, where rainforest is being destroyed to establish new oil palm plantations. It is an important fact that 90% of the palm oil produced in Malaysia is used by the food industry; therefore biofuels cannot be held solely responsible for this deforestation. There is a pressing need for sustainable palm oil production for the food and fuel industries; palm oil is used in a wide variety of food products. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels is working to define criteria, standards and processes to promote sustainably produced biofuels. Palm oil is also used in the manufacture of detergents, and in electricity and heat generation both in Asia and around the world (the UK burns palm oil in coal-fired power stations to generate electricity).
Significant area is likely to be dedicated to sugar cane in future years as demand for ethanol increases worldwide. The expansion of sugar cane plantations will place pressure on environmentally sensitive native ecosystems including rainforest in South America. In forest ecosystems, these effects themselves will undermine the climate benefits of alternative fuels, in addition to representing a major threat to global biodiversity.
Although biofuels are generally considered to improve net carbon output, biodiesel and other fuels do produce local air pollution, including nitrogen oxides, the principal cause of smog.
Steven Rattner, former "auto czar" for U.S. President Barack Obama, wrote an Op-ed for The New York Times in June, 2011, entitled "The Great Corn Con," characterizing ethanol as "an example of government policy run amok." Along with the economic and environmental impacts of the U.S. policy, he noted the impact of the issue on presidential politics:
Those [presidential] hopefuls have seen no need for a foolish consistency. John McCain and John Kerry were against ethanol subsidies, then as candidates were for them. Having lost the presidency, Mr. McCain is now against them again. Al Gore was for ethanol before he was against it. This time, one hopeful is experimenting with counter-programming: as governor of corn-producing Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty pushed for subsidies before he embraced a "straight talk" strategy.
In April, 2014 an article  in the Financial Times described how biofuel manufacturers in Europe felt threatened by changing European Union climate policies. After mapping rigorous regulations for cleaner fuels in 2009, the European Commission decided not to set specific fuel targets from 2020 to 2030. Instead the Commission recommended  a “more holistic and integrated approach” to creating an efficient biofuels policy. The EC also called for “an improved biomass policy” to “maximize the resource efficient use of biomass in order to deliver robust and verifiable greenhouse gas savings and to allow for fair competition between the various uses of biomass resources in the construction sector, paper and pulp industries and biochemical and energy production.” Fair competition in the acquisition of biomass feedstocks is what established bio-industries are asking for. Incentives provided to biofuel producers create an uneven playing field. “The pine chemical industry, which uses a co product called crude tall oil from the paper-pulping process, says it's concerned that incentives will divert its major raw material into biofuel production,” stated a Greenwire article.
- Environmental impact of aviation
- Social and environmental impact of palm oil
- Environmental issues with energy
- List of environmental issues
- Towards sustainable production and use of resources: Assessing Biofuels, 2009, International Resource Panel, United Nations Environment Programme
- various (2006). World Energy Outlook 2006. IEA. p. 596.
- As Biofuels Catch On, Next Task Is to Deal With Environmental, Economic Impact
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- The Impact of US Biofuel Policies on Agricultural Price Levels and Volatility, By Bruce A. Babcock, Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University, for ICTSD, Issue Paper No. 35. June 2011.
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- To calculate this relationship, one has to take into account that irrigated corn needs about 560 cubic meters (2.1m gallons) of water per ton of corn (as quoted in Eco-World. Ed Ring:Is bio-fuel water positive? June 4, 2007 using estimates from the University of Colorado and UNESCO, as well as a clarification by David Nielsen, Research Agronomist, USDA-ARS, Akron, Colorado, posted on July 19, 2007.) A good ethanol yield is about 480 gallons per acre per year, and a typical corn yield is 5.6 tons per acre per year. Assuming that half the crop water needs can be met through rainfall, this would mean that still 1,570 cubic meter (1.57m liter) - 280 cubic meter of water per ton, multiplied by 5.6 tons per acre - of irrigation water are needed per acre per year to produce 1,817 liter (480 gallons) of ethanol.
- The Economist, March 1, 2008, Ethanol and water: don't mix, p. 36
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- sprzedaje w Polsce biomasę z Rosji
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- Concawe European WTW study
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