How “bio” biofuels really are

by Sebastian Kägler

Biofuel. Biofuel. Everybody talks about biofuel…

But what exactly is biofuel? Other titles can also be biodiesel or renewable diesel and it is mainly produced from fats, extracted from oil palms. Furthermore, it also could be extracted out of vegetable oils (e.g. rapeseeds or sunflowers) which then are hydrotreated to be suitable as fuel. After processing it is blended with standard fossil diesel with a share between 5% and 10% and then delivered to normal vehicles.

Estimations and modeled scenarios point out, that the consumption of biofuels can increase up to a six times higher need until 2030, compared to today’s consumption. By then the demand of palm oil (the main ingredient) only for fuel would reach a greater amount than today’s global production, which is at about 60 million tonnes palm oil per year.

This strong increase will have a lot of side-effects in a variety of sectors and will not just affect the landscape but also other sectors. A sector which doesn’t come into one’s mind at first is the food market. For the highest modeled scenario, the global vegetable oil prices are assumed to increase by around 25% which would imply $50 billion in additional annual costs for consumers. Spontaneous variations in biofuel demand in fact already lead to a food price spike in recent years and are said to have contributed to price increases for vegetable oil in the last decade. The reason for this harmful connection is the increasing misappropriation of vegetable oil in order to satisfy the demand of the biofuel industry. The originally for food, feed and pharmaceutical sectors produced vegetable oils are missing in this sector which drives up the productions costs in this sector, which the consumers will have to pay in the end.

The good market situation and ongoing implementation of national biofuel blending targets, palm oil is a major driver for land use change. In order to create more production areas, the remaining primary forests are exploited and afterward replanted with palm oil monocultures. As Malaysia and Indonesia are the main producers, palm oil plantations are the key driver of deforestation in their rainforests. Borneo, for example, lost 25% of forest cover since the 1980’s and with an estimated deforestation rate of more than one million hectares per year, it could decrease to only 25% remaining forest cover by 2020. Due to this vast deforestation, forest in those areas are no longer a sink for carbon – they actually became a massive carbon emitter themselves.

Besides the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), a huge effect on biodiversity loss can be determined by the removal of primary as well as secondary forests. Those threatened areas are highly biodiverse and often are inhabited by endemic species. As palm oil plantations do only provide habitats for some species, many on rainforests relating species are forced into small remaining patches of forests which are highly fragmented and often barely capable of submitting the necessaries for survival. A shortly released research even pointed out, that there have been revealed some secondary drivers for the loss of diversity.

In the end, it seems like the standard fossil diesel got a facelift with some BIOlogical ingredients but on the loss of BIOtopes, BIOmass, BIOdiversity, and BIOlogical buffer capacity and carbon storage.


Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR


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