The controversial debate over the sustainability of biofuels has been reignited by new research from Swiss-based research institute Empa. While the study maintains that biofuels can be sustainable depending on certain conditions and the technology involved, the findings suggest that only a few are more environmentally friendly than gasoline.
The study entitled Harmonisation and extension of the bioenergy inventories and assessment was carried out by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) in conjunction with the Institute Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon (ART), and the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). It is an update on a first of its kind report compiled in 2007, made more relevant for the present with new energy plants, manufacturing processes and updated assessment methods. Yet, the researchers arrived at a similar conclusion.
Although biofuels can have a smaller carbon footprint compared with fossil fuels, they produce other types of environmental pollution, including soil acidity and excessive levels of fertilizers finding their way into lakes and rivers.
More alarmingly, biofuels from deforested areas have a bigger greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint than fossil fuels. This is also true of indirect land usage – if existing agricultural land is used for the first time for a biofuel crop, new areas will have to be cleared to make up for displaced food and animal feed crops.
“Most biofuels therefore just deflect the environmental impact: fewer greenhouse gases, thus more growth-related pollution for land used for agriculture,” says Empa researcher Rainer Zah.
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