Biofuels: maybe much worse than carbon fuels

Biofuels seemed like such an environmentally friendly solution.  Carbon-based energy sources like coal and oil spew tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, are contributing disastrously to the deterioration of the air we breathe, and are helping to change Earth’s climate in ways that could be catastrophic. 

Biofuels, on the other hand, extract energy from crops grown on arable land, and do not leave a gigantic carbon footprint.  Doesn’t this sound wonderful?  Won’t the whole world soon turn into green luscious fields?   I’m beginning to fear that it isn’t.  In fact, biofuels might be much more environmentally destructive than carbon fuels.  Why?

First of all, biofuels are voracious consumers of arable land.  In fact, they require far more arable land than we can possibly afford if we want to continue to eat.  In Britian, for instance, the total farm land is just under 6 million hectares.  We would need five times that to grow enough crops to create biofuels to meet our energy needs. 

In some developing countries the situation is even more dire, because there is less quality arable land to feed the population, and farmers are finding they get much better pay for biofuel crops than for food crops.  As farmers everywhere switch from food crops to planting for fuel companies, food prices are going up, and are going to keep going up.  Farmland birds and plants are disappearing at an alarming rate.  So too are forests, and with them the unique wildlife they support.

Nuclear energy is clean and efficient until you start worrying about the spent fuel rods or the possibility of an accident like those in Three Mile Island in the States or Chernobyl in Russia.  A process called fusion would provide the world with unlimited clean energy.  Unfortunately, nobody has figured out yet how to actually make it work.  Scientists are working on it.  We can only hope they will figure it out or find another alternative in time.

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About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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