Biofuels made from corn, palm oil, and sugar cane are being counted on to replace a significant share of the fossil fuels scientists say are heating up Earth's atmosphere.
But less than a week after biofuels were touted as part of the solution to global warming in the third of three highly anticipated UN-sponsored reports on climate change (PDF), another UN report has raised alarms about their viability.
The idea of making fuel from crops is appealing, since much of the world lacks reserves of oil or other fossil fuels, said UN-Energy chairman Mats Karlsson at a May 8 press conference in New York, as reported by the Associated Press. But, he said, there may be negative effects from the use of biofuels as well.
Among those downsides: Large tracts of fuel crops could take land away from food production and raise food prices. They could also do environmental damage and even release CO2 that would offset the climate advantages of burning biofuels. Said Greenpeace biofuels expert Jan van Aken:
"More and more, people are realizing that there are serious environmental and serious food security issues involved in biofuels. There is more to the environment than climate change. Climate change is the most pressing issue, but you cannot fight climate change by large deforestation in Indonesia."
Biofuels can have a future, but they must be grown with a sustainable environment in mind, said the British advocacy group Biofuels Watch in a press release. Looking to the future, the group worries that genetically modified crops, developed to maximize their fuel potential, might be put into the field without proper testing or safeguards. Said spokesperson Almuth Ernsting:
"It is already clear that the burgeoning demand for biofuels that has been created to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is actually increasing them by deforestation in the tropics and accelerating climate change. So far, only 1 percent of global transport fuel comes from biofuels, yet already biofuels cause steep rises in grain and vegetable oil prices, threatening the food security of poor people and spurring agricultural expansion into forests and grasslands, on which we depend for a stable climate."
A big factor will be what kind of plants are grown and where they are planted. A story on jatropha in this newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, May 8, said that the biofuel plant, which was once considered a weed, is beginning to get an enthusiastic welcome in places like India and Africa. It can be grown with minimal effort on land unsuitable for food production.
Some environmentalists argue that actions such as cutting down the Brazilian rain forest to grow sugar cane for fuel just don't make sense. In the future, governments and consumers may insist on knowing where their biofuel comes from before they buy it. That could discourage production of nonsustainable biofuels, said Andy Hunter in a story in Britain's Independent newspaper. His company, Argent Energy, makes biodiesel from tallow and used cooking oil rather than corn or sugar cane. He believes:
"As companies look at [the issue], it will put pressure on some crops. In the future, biofuels which can be branded as sustainable will command a premium."
At a hearing before a congressional subcommittee May 8, a spokesman for the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, which undoubtedly has a keen interest in the success or failure of biofuels, raised another drawback. If Americans worry now about oil supplies being unpredictable or subject to shortages, what about future biofuels? Said executive vice president Charlie Drevna in a press statement (PDF):
"Imported oil may very well have geo-political security concerns of its own, but transferring dependency on a commodity that can be severely impacted by a number of uncontrollable events (drought, storms, heat waves, etc.) creates a new dimension of uncertainty to energy supply."
All this may mean that the day is still a long way off when Marty McFly in the science fiction movie "Back to the Future" could power a flying car with just about any organic substance that was dumped into the fuel tank.
But innovators around the world keep experimenting. Residents of the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea are powering their vehicles with fuel made in backyard refineries from the oil of local coconut trees, reports the BBC. One of them, Matthias Horn, says:
"The coconut tree is a beautiful tree. Doesn't it sound good if you really run your car on something which falls off a tree, and that's the good thing about it. You run your car, and it smells nice, and it's environmentally friendly, and that's the main thing."