First off: what exactly are biofuels?
Check out the video below for a full rundown on what biofuels are:
Second: Do biofuels emit greenhouse gases?
Yes. Several studies show that biofuels are better than fossil fuels because the production of biomass crops (sugarcane, soybeans, corn etc.) will offset the co2 produced when burned. However the reality is different. In fact if you were to exclude offsetting, burning biomass directly emits a bit more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels for the same amount of generated energy but does burn less pollutants overall.
The drawback? Land use
So yes, companies claiming that biomass and biofuels are 100% renewable are in effect solely relying on the “offsetting” claim, which would come into play during the production process of biomass. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand biomass cultivation is a much cleaner process than fossil fuel extraction, on the other it needs insane amounts of land. Land that could be used for food production, or forest land that is cleared to make way for bioenergy cultivations. This begs the question: are they truly offsetting by planting crops or are they chopping down wild areas—that are already carbon sinks—to make way for biomass cultivations?
“Because land and the plants growing on it are already generating these benefits, diverting land – even degraded, under-utilised areas – to bioenergy means sacrificing much-needed food, timber, and carbon storage.” – the Guardian
Are all biofuels created equal?
No. Some biofuels are harnessed from excess food production ie. food waste. Biogas is a type of biofuel and an example of this, and it can be produced from food waste and organic waste. In Sweden it has been a source of energy since the 1960s. More R&D into algae biofuel is also promising, it wouldn’t have the land use issue however how and where the algae is planted will be of great importance.
Won’t burning too much biogas or biofuel produce too many greenhouse gases anyways?
Yes. Some waste-to-energy plants filter pollutants from their emissions such as nitrogen oxide, making them overall cleaner than traditional power plants. Our energy demands are too high for the planet, yet a circular model such as food-waste-energy can be a lesser evil overall.
Biofuels are marketed as greener and renewable energies, however they still emit GHG when burnt and demand too much land. Perhaps only food waste energy plants like the one in Copenhagen could be used as a transitional energy source and deemed “better than fossil fuels”. Unfortunately, generally biofuels will not solve the crisis and will create worst ones like what happened in Brazil with ethanol.