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What we're doing wrong

Some biofuels are “worse than useless”

2nd February 2008

Biofuels are falsely promoted as "green," but the energy used to grow them and the nitrous oxide emissions from fertilisers mean they can have an even greater global warming effect than fossil fuels, says a Nobel-prize winning scientist

Biofuels made from crops like wheat (pictured), corn and canola can be worse for the climate than fossil fuels

Biofuels made from crops like wheat (pictured), corn and canola can be worse for the climate than fossil fuels

The European Union unveiled its new plan for tackling climate change last week, with an overall goal of at least a 20-per-cent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. Highlights include: generating at least 20 per cent of the continent’s energy from renewables, a carbon-trading scheme (which puts a price on carbon emissions, encouraging industry to lower them) and – most controversial – a requirement that 10 per cent of transport fuels come from biofuels.

Biofuels are promoted as “green” because, even though they produce carbon dioxide when burned, they soak up carbon dioxide while growing and so are thought to lower greenhouse-gas emissions over all compared with fossil fuels. But they cause ecological havoc in other ways: using corn and wheat for fuel drives up the price of food crops, rain forests are cut down to grow palm oil and sugar cane, and the crops devour huge quantities of fresh water.

In the long run, greenhouse-gas savings from today’s biofuels are marginal to none when you factor in the fossil fuels required to power the farm machinery, transport vehicles and refineries. Moreover, if you consider the extra nitrous oxide (also a greenhouse gas) emitted to the atmosphere from the required fertilizers, some biofuels – in particular, canola – can actually be worse for global warming than fossil fuels, says Keith Smith, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Edinburgh who published a research paper on the subject this week in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, co-written with Nobel-prize winner Paul Crutzen.

“So in practical terms, some biofuels are actually worse than useless,” Prof. Smith says. “The evidence against them is piling up.”

Published in The Green Report in The Globe and Mail

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