Why biofuels could mean more carbon emissions

16 April 2008

The Independent  featured in its letters section (16 April 2008) one from RSC chief executive, Dr Richard Pike, in which he expresses concerns and his views about the future of Biofuels. 


Your excellent article (The Burning Question) on the adverse effect of first-generation biofuels becomes even more compelling when recent quantitative information is considered.

In burning woodland to clear an area for biofuels, as your front page photograph showed, typically about 100-200 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare are released into the atmosphere.

The biofuel yield, conversely, is around four tonnes per hectare per year. If largely carbon, the combustion of this in a car engine would reduce net carbon dioxide emissions (versus fossil fuel usage) by about 15 tonnes.

But, biofuel has a lower carbon content than conventional fuel, and use of fertiliser, harvesting and distribution of biofuels reduces the overall annual benefit.

Consequently, the "carbon payback time" may be many decades using these particular farming practices. Any targets for biofuel use set for 2020 is almost certainly going to increase the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere over the period to that date.

The way ahead is research into improving the yield of biofuels, better regulation and more effective government decision-making on land usage internationally and more focus on other energy sources. 

The world also needs to prepare in the longer term for a chemicals industry fed by biomass, when hydrocarbons become scarce, and for which there will then be no other alternative.


Dr Richard Pike
Chief Executive, Royal Society of Chemistry 

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