Studies in biofuels hit a major snag in Europe this week when a study by a team of German researchers revealed that biodiesel from rapeseed oil doesn’t meet the EU’s sustainability requirements. The EU’s current energy directive mandates that emissions from biofuels used for transport be at least 35% lower than emissions from fossil fuels, and that goal is expected to increase to 50% by 2017. Bioenergy (includes biofuels, biomass, biogas) plays a large role in the EU’s future clean energy plans, making up more than 50% of the region’s projected renewable energy use. Biodiesel use is expected to double by 2020 to nearly 20 million tonnes. So, these recent findings are likely to be a source of concern to Europeans.
What does this mean for the EU’s renewable energy objectives? From my research, two obvious issues arise with the use of existing biofuels:
- As the German researchers point out, there are doubts that significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved with today’s mainstream biofuels. The main organic ingredients used in biodiesel production are rapeseed oil in Europe and corn in the United States. The Germans report that rapeseed biodiesel produced greenhouse gas emissions reductions under 30%, and studies show that corn ethanol reduces emissions by only 20%. While these fuels represent an improvement from fossil fuels, such small emissions reductions will not achieve the targets necessary to slow the progress of climate change. Although, I think it’s worth noting that all other biofuels used within the United States are touted to achieve at least a 50% reduction in emissions. So, it looks like biofuels can offer a viable solution; we just need to shift our source materials.
- Biofuels use a significant portion of a country’s crop yields. The Guardian reports that 50% of U.S. corn production and 60% of European rapeseed production go toward biofuel production. During one of the most severe droughts in U.S. recorded history, such a large portion of inevitably lower crop yields is bound to put a strain on food markets. Not only would a lower corn yield result in higher corn prices to account for diminished supply, but it is also expected to increase grain prices because animal feed will be more dependent upon wheat.
Looking at the facts, it would seem that current mainstream biofuels do not offer a long-term solution to our renewably energy needs. But, perhaps what we need is a shift to new organic source material – an organic material that achieves significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions and does not eat up valuable cropland. We’ve already seen that seaweed has the potential to produce biofuel without competing with agriculture for land. But according to Discovery, cellulose material, algal oil, and Camelina and Jatropha flowers are among the top contenders for the future of biofuel. Each of those sources is deserving of their own blog posts, but I think it’s worth noting that we are certainly not out of options in the field of biofuels. With continued research and investment, we should be able to shift to fuels that will offer even greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Corn ethanol and Rapeseed biodiesel may have reached their limitations, but they represent just one stepping-stone on the path to a cleaner energy future.