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ENVIRONMENT: But What Is Good About Biofuels?

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Apr 17 2008 (IPS) - The German government decision two weeks back against increased use of biofuels was based on technical reasons – more than three millions vehicles cannot burn biofuels without risking engine breakdown.

But this reason might be the least important of all. Environmental experts have been warning that biofuels, far from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, actually have a negative environmental footprint.

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) resulting from the burning of fossil combustibles are said by a vast body of scientists to provoke global warming and consequently climate change.

Additionally, a biofuels boom driven by rising world fuel prices and the growing worldwide demand for energy has contributed to creating conditions for the present food scarcity in many regions by crowding out production of grains such as maize and wheat.

The German government found that biofuels do not work very well as fuel. The government also reversed its decision to double the amount of biofuels mixed in gasoline.

In August 2007, the government had announced that by 2009, the biofuels component of fuel for automobiles would be doubled to ten percent. This increase was part of a general strategy aimed at reducing emissions by 36 percent by 2020 relative to 1990.

But three weeks ago, the Verband der deutschen Autoindustrie (VDA), the federation of German automobile companies, said more than three million cars could not use biofuels. It had earlier estimated the number at 375,000.

Environmental experts have welcomed the government&#39s turnaround. But their concern extends to more than car engines.

"Not all biofuels have a positive environmental footprint, and therefore we have to question government plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions based on the burning of such agrofuels," said Guido Reinhardt of the Institute for Environmental and Energy Research at the University of Heidelberg, 470 kilometres southeast of Berlin.

Reinhardt told IPS that biofuels gained from extensive plantations of oil palms, soybean, rapeseeds and the like have a negative environmental footprint due to massive use of pesticides and fertilisers, which leads to acidification of groundwater.

"You also have to consider whether for the production of soybean oil the tropical forest in Brazil or in Indonesia is being eroded," Reinhardt pointed out.

Reinhardt told IPS that "some biofuels actually help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But, in a general way, it is better to use biomass as fuel, than burning agrofuels gained from soybeans, rapeseeds, maize, and similar plants."

Biomass is biological material that can be used as fuel or for industrial production. It excludes organic material which has been transformed by geological processes into substances such as coal or petroleum.

"Biomass is already available, and it is not a competition to the production of food such as maize and similar grains, which are otherwise being used to distillate biofuels," Reinhardt said.

Objections to biofuels have been raised in the recent past by numerous studies. A report by the Hamburg-based Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency released in May 2007 concluded that "there is sound scientific evidence…that first-generation biofuels (that is, those produced using food crops) will create much more problems than they will solve."

Among the problems, the agency included "deforestation, increase in greenhouse gas emissions, requirements for land that does not exist to achieve positive environmental effects, enhanced food insecurity, creation of more poverty, increased soil degradation, decreased biodiversity, (and) accelerated depletion of natural resources."

Scientists of the European Commission&#39s Joint Research Centre (JCR) concluded recently that that the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by burning biofuels will "almost certainly outweigh the benefits."

Numerous other experts, including scientists at the World Food Programme and the World Bank, are warning that a trade-off between fuel and food is taking place, and that the economically more attractive production of biofuels for the industrialised countries has crowded out food production for the poorest regions of the world.

Increasing prices of food, and their scarcity, have recently sparked riots and unrest in Egypt, Mexico, Haiti, Bolivia and Uzbekistan.

Reinhardt called for a stop on use of biofuels "until it is guaranteed that they are produced in a sustainable way."

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