Aug 20, 2007

Biofuels could be harmful to the environment, British researchers say

Leeds, England – Researchers at the University of Leeds in England and the World Land Trust have warned that growing biofuel crops to make automotive fuel could actually be harmful to the environment. The scientists say that up to nine times as much carbon dioxide will be emitted using biofuels, compared to conventional gasoline and diesel, because biofuel crops are typically grown on land that is burned and reclaimed from tropical forests.

In a report, the researchers say that large areas of land in the developing world are being converted to grow crops such as sugar cane and palm oil, as part of the global rush to make biofuels. The report concludes that protecting and restoring natural forests and grasslands is a much better way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“This study shows that if your primary concern is reducing carbon dioxide emissions, growing biofuels is not the best way to do it,” says study co-author Dominick Spracklen. “In fact, it can have a perverse impact elsewhere in the world. The amount of carbon that is released when you clear forests to make way for the biofuel crop is much more than the amount you get back from growing biofuels over a 30-year period. You can’t convert your car to run on biodiesel and keep on driving and think that everything will be okay. You are turning a blind eye to what’s happening in the world, and that in fact, you could be making things much worse.”

The study compared the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that would be prevented from entering the atmosphere by growing biofuels, with the amount saved from slowing deforestation and restoring forests over a 30-year period. The study also found that converting large areas of land back to forest also provides other environmental benefits, such as preventing desertification and regional climate regulation. The conversion of large areas of land to make biofuels will make further strains on the environment.

European Union member states have pledged to replace ten per cent of transport fuel with biofuel from crops by 2020; meeting the target would require an area larger than one-third of all agricultural land in Europe, the study says.

“There is a big push in the E.U. and U.S. to promote biofuels as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” Spracklen says. “What we do here has an impact on the rest of the world. Although biofuels may look like a good idea in places like Europe, they have a perverse effect when you take into account the rest of the world.”

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