Biofuels are energy sources derived from non-fossil biological materials, such as trees, shrubs, food crops (corn, palm trees, soybean, sugar cane), animal fats, food processing wastes, land-fills, others.
The official rationale is the goal of reducing CO2 emissions by replacing fossil fuels, especially in motorised transportation, heating, and cooking.
The energy from biofuels can be used directly, by burning the plant or animal material, or indirectly by burning the liquid or gas that is derived by a technical process.
Common biofuels are ethanol, biodiesel, biogas, wood, wood pellets, others. In cars, bioethanol must be mixed with normal gas.
Biofuels are sometimes said to be "sustainable" because the plant material can grow back and waste gases from land-fills would otherwise disperse and pollute the environment unused.
In a narrow sense, assuming all other societal and environmental conditions are staying the same (the Ceteris Paribus condition for valid science), some biofuels could be sustainable in certain sectors.
|<reminder> A process is sustainable if it can be carried on unchanged for a long time, for generations, hundreds of years. One generation is 25 years. Homo sapiens has existed for some 8000 generations, i.e. 200000 years. The fossil fuel age started some 250 years ago. Presently, after 10 generations we are at the peak level of fossil fuel use: Peak-Oil. Modernity with our levels of technology and population size is totally dependent on fossil fuels, the depletion of other minerals, and the exploitation and destruction of nature. There is no quantitative and qualitative replacement for fossil fuels. Hope, Optimism and yet-to-be-invented Technologies can not help us today, nor can they recreate lost resources or revive lost species. The post-petroleum age will therefore be a downslope - expected to start with the next five to fifteen years. It will entail a reduction of industrial and agricultural production, as well as a roll-back of globalisation, i.e. a forced return to local production and consumption structures. Fossil fuels have allowed humankind to grow to its present size and level of overshoot of the earth's carrying capacity. Even if we would find alternative fuels, we would still use far to much of the other resources, such as fertile soils, water, and continue to destroy nature by overfishing, deforestation and the expansion of human settlements. This trend is unbroken because of the continued policies of Trade and Economic Growth, and the tabooing of Population Growth.</reminder>|
In the light of general sustainability and overshoot it is actually superfluous to discuss the sector sustainability and other features of biofuels.
The main problem of biofuels is the Food or Fuel controversy. Biofuels, such as fuel crops and trees, always directly or indirectly compete with the production of food. Therefore, if feeding the present and future higher population sizes is one of our main goals, the use of agriculture and forestry for fuels is irresponsible. Food we need. Cars are not needed.
Even with Lithium the question is whether we eat it to subdue bipolar problems or use it for solar panels.
Nebraska Soybean Association
Other questions are the energetic return on investment, the limited production capacity, the destruction of biodiversity by deforestation and conversion to planted forests, social problems such as the exploitation of farm workers and the illegal appropriation of lands.
ecoglobe can only conclude that "sustainable biofuels" do not exist. Firstly because we have already overshot the earth's carrying capacity by far, which demands reduction instead of maintaining present industrial overshoot. Secondly because most biofuel production compete with food production and with the need to preserve biodiversity.
Biofuels for transportation are a waste of energy because individual motorised transportation is not sustainable and will therefore probably disappear on the downslope after peak-oil. The promotion of biofuels and the discussion on "sustainable" biofuels, certification, labeling, and the like are happening in a space that is disconnected from general sustainability principles and trends.
Biofuels are always crowding out food production and/or the use of biomass for other purposes, such as heating or composting, directly or indirectly.
We should focus on our main problems of overshoot and the suicidal growth policy.
Some biofuels and trade+growth sites:
[This page was written becaus of a meeting organised by the ICTSD on "Trading Biofuel: Update on Markets and Sustainability Criteria" at the WTO on 28.2.2011.]
Renewable resources are products made of plant and animal material.
Renewables are regenerated by the interactive functioning of nature.
Sustainability is a state of human affairs where we don't consume more renewables than nature can regenerate.
Non-renewables are finite resource stocks, such as fossil fuels, uranium, metals*) and minerals, soil fertility, fossil water, a normal climate, natural forests, etc., that are not renewed by nature on a human time scale. Once they are depleted they are lost to us, on a normal human time scale.
No technology or ingenuity or money can recreate lost minerals and biodiversity.
* Some recycling of metals is possible, but only as long as the energetic return on investment is positive. At increased levels of technology, applied for recycling and technonogical environment protection, the efficiency will decline, till the input is higher than the useful effect. Compare Gruhl p. 132 ff (German).
Some regeneration of soils might also be possible. But it may face the same technical efficiency limits. Compare Salonius (English).