Monday, June 25, 2007

Sustainable Biofuels: A Guest Post by Colin Forrest

Colin Forrest,
Monday 25th June 07

Everyone is rightly banging on about the destruction and havoc caused by mass monocultures of crops for biofuels for transport fuels. This is driven largely by fears of peak oil. Yes there are loads of alternative energy sources, but we are stumped for sufficient alternatives for liquid transport fuels, and that's what is worrying governments: demand reduction, energy efficiency, electrification of rail and trams, biodiesel and ethanol, that's about it. You can make oil out of coal but its costly.

Mainstream big business is desperately trying to find a way of keeping the wheels going round.
"Envoronmentalists should be equally concerned with articulating sustainable solutions which solve global warming, maintain current standards of living, and improve the environments, and biofuels, especially wood, can, in some situations, do all three."

Regarding biodiesel and bioethanol, yes the humanitarian and environmental damage from large monocultures of crops for oil seeds/ethanol is unjustifiable, but, on a smaller scale, as part of balanced sustainable agriculture, its not necessarily bad, and remember that the rest isn't wasted. The proteins, fibre and carbohydrates left over are used as animal food and fuel. Used wisely, these crops could be a part of the solution. Let's not throw the baby out along with the bath water.

Also, let's not forget that sustainably harvested wood is one of the most environmentally benign things you can actually do for the planet, and it is the most commonly used renewable energy on the planet by a long way (although not usually used sustainably at the moment).

Used to generate electricity, with the low grade heat energy "cascaded" and used locally to heat buildings, warm greenhouses etc, and with the CO2 captured and buried, it could save the planet. Seriously.
"It is one of the few technologies which could be carbon negative, i.e. using it could actually reduce atmospheric levels of CO2."
The average woodland in Scotland is taking 6 tons of carbon (net) out of the atmosphere every year, per hectare.

Deciduous trees are generally better for biodiversity, will do better in northern latitudes as the climate warms (lower respiration demands in winter), reflect more heat from the sun back into space (higher albedo) especially if the ground is covered with snow in the winter, and look prettier. Also most deciduous trees can be coppiced". If cut down at ground level, they regrow more rapidly than a newly planted seedling (because they still have a big root system) and CO2 emissions from soil disturbance at harvesting and replanting time are greatly reduced

Really, trees are amazing solar energy collectors, help the environment, don't require mining for minerals, use dodgy heavy metals or industrial processes, have minimal transport and environmental costs to install, and are incredibly cheap to install.

Finally, substituting wood for more energy intensive materials such as steel, brick and concrete achieves even greater carbon savings than using it as a biofuel. Truly a neglected part of the global warming solution.


Thanks to Colin for this piece. If anyone else would like to contribute a guest post,
relating to this or any other climate related topic then feel free to email me on

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At 12:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of people believe that we can have sustainable biofuels. The problem is that there are no official proposals which would actually allow sustainable sourcing of biofuels. The European Commission have drawn up 'sustainability safeguards' which ignore human rights and food security, and they say that they won't be able to do anything about biofuels displacing other types of agriculture into rainforests or peatlands. The UK, and apparently the Dutch governments have abandoned any idea of stopping companies from using the worst deforestation fuel - they want nothing but a reporting requirement. Various stakeholder forums have come up with nice lists of what 'sustainable' means and no idea at all about how to enforce or verify standards. Meantime, whilst we might wish for sustainable forestry for our energy needs, remember that most of the UK's wood products are imported, many from illegal sources, including tropical forests being rapidly destroyed. In 2005, according to the Forestry Commission, the UK produced 11.4 m tonnes of wood. This is expected to increase to 14m by 2020. At the same time, our net imports were 36.1 m tonnes.

Once we can sustainably meet our demands for wood otherwise, let's talk of providing the additional wood for bioenergy, too! If we want our biofuels to be sustainable then the only way forward is a moratorium on targets, incentives and imports now until convincing safeguards have been developed and are in place.

Almuth Ernsting


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