Bio-fuels: Not So Environment-Friendly?
Recently, the race for finding alternative sources of fuel has been on the list of developmental schemes of many countries around the world. The major reason of this problem is growing concerns about the ever increasing carbon footprint of developed countries and emerging economies resulting in global climate change. This issue has been raised by many profit and non-profit organizations for decades and brought into limelight by recent oil price hikes in the past two years. As a result, major corporations are seeking to have a stake in the probable venture and are promoting their own interests by lobbying the governments to make more business friendly laws to facilitate production of raw materials and process them into fuel. Furthermore, they are actively advertising the benefits of bio-fuel and the positive effects it will have on the environment. All of the above market players have their own agendas. Meanwhile, common people, the ultimate consumers of the products and the ultimate bearers of the consequences, namely the drivers and commuters, have no credible sources of information and are almost always unaware if there are any downsides of bio-fuel. This paper is aimed at a wide audience and seeks to remind the governments across the world, the NGOs, the business houses of their moral duties towards the consumers. The paper is also focused at educating consumers about the fact that bio-fuels are much more of a bane than a boon at present, since they disturb ecological harmony and do not reduce carbon emission as much as has been claimed, and even increase it.
Bio-fuels: Not So Environment-Friendly?
Ever since civilization has existed, people have needed fuel and have never stopped finding new sources of it. Many of the ancient fuels such as wood and charcoal are still used in developing countries for cooking and heating. Nevertheless, along with industrialization, the invention of electricity and modern modes of transports, and search for cheaper sources of fuel, the world has come to depend largely on fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum. Between the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century, they have replaced wood as a main source of energy. This system would not have been altered but for certain oil crises (1973, 1979 and the famous 1990 Gulf War) and recent debates over carbon emission and its effect on the environment. It is at this time that bio-fuel was presented as a magical solution. Nevertheless, recent research and certain events in the past few years have raised a question on the appropriateness of bio-fuels. Despite many advantages of biofuel, its environmental friendliness and ecological safety should be questioned due to a number of evident counterarguments. This paper will cover the main disadvantages of bio-fuels in order to inform the audience about all the aspect of this issue.
Bio-fuels reduce the emission of greenhouse gases thus slowing down the rate of global climate change (Dinneen). All the bio-fuels use little to no fossil fuel as raw materials thus reducing dependency on them and protecting the effect drilling has on local flora and fauna, especially that of offshore drilling on the marine life. Lower emission of aromatic hydrocarbons decreases occurrences of respiratory diseases related to them in the population.
The fact that ethanol can be mixed with diesel for a motor fuel has been known since the World War I, but it came to be used commercially for the first time during the OAPEC oil export embargo of 1973 and then again during the 1979 Iranian revolution and the 1990 Gulf War. At that time, it was used as a means to deal with the crude oil shortages caused by the above incidents, but in the last decade it has emerged as a holy grail for declining fossil fuel reserves, unpredictable and fluctuating crude oil prices and, last but not the least, climate change. Since 2010, all the major economies in the world have seriously considered accepting widespread use of bio-fuel as an option, while some of them, including Brazil, the U.S. and the EU, have taken legal and fiscal steps to accommodate its production and distribution. As a result, it has become imperative that this avenue not only be explored fully but also rigorously researched upon to properly qualify and quantify its actual effectiveness. In order to fully understand the impact of the bio-fuel on the environment, additional research should be conducted.
100% pure ethanol is a source of energy, but it is used as an additive for diesel in varying percentages, as it increases the engine performance. It is produced by fermentation of complex sugars and thus any material used for production of edible alcohol, such as wheat, corn, barley, sugarcane, etc. can be used for this purpose. It is the most common form of bio-fuel, popularized at first by Brazil and now being used worldwide. Other forms of pure alcohols used as additives are propanol and butanol. It is produced from various vegetable oils and fats and has similar density to petroleum products. Therefore, it can be used without any additives. Produced by anaerobic decomposition of organic wastes, such as animal dung, vegetable wastes, etc. on a large scale, it is produced by feeding cereals and other carbohydrate rich crops into anaerobic digesters. It has been used on a large scale for a very long time in rural India, which is conducting most of the research on developing better models of digesters. Apart from India, Germany also produces large volumes of biogas. As it uses waste material as raw material, while its waste products can also be used as manure with minimal treatment, countries around the world have initiated programs to use it as a way of waste management, as well. Apart from these, other forms of biogas being used on very small scales include methanol produced from compressed natural gas, bio-ethers, syngas, vegetable oils, and, as mentioned before, wood and charcoal.
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The negative consequences of bio-fuels have been befittingly portrayed in Slash and Burn by Heather Rogers, which pays particular attention to production of bio-fuel from oil palms to emphasize the damage it can cause to ecosystems, indigenous people and their culture. Pareh, Borneo is a village of people belonging to the indigenous tribes of Dayak. According to Rogers, “In 2005……an Indonesian company named Duta Palma Nusantara, was seizing their ancestral land to establish a massive plantation of oil palms, a tree whose oil is rendered and refined into biodiesel.” The plantation also uprooted monkeys and wild boars, which, in turn, influenced the community’s food supply (Rogers). The article points out how widespread commercial usage of bio-fuel is going to raise more issues than it solves in the near future and disturb not only the ecosystem but also peaceful communities in distant corners of the world. Hedegaard claims, “Large-scale production of bio-fuels in Asia — such as palm oil plantations in Papua New Guinea — could cause serious environmental challenges for the entire planet, starting with the clearance of forest land for plantations.”
The most important idea brought forth by Rogers and Hedegaard is the effect of bio-fuel on the natural balance of ecosystem. If large sections of forest lands are cleared to accommodate palm plantations, it will destroy the habitats of thousands of wild animals, many of which may already be endangered. The alternative, on the other hand, is diverting farm land for such plantations or using food crops such as corn and wheat already being grown on those fields for this purpose. This, in turn, raises the problem of food security. With the ever growing world population and the demand of food crops increasing day by day, taking such a step would not only create an acute food shortage but also increase food prices. Thus, it has both environmental and economic implications.
Another major issue is whether the net result of making bio-fuel the main motor fuel is a decrease in carbon emission. Clearing grassland releases 93 times the carbon saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, lead author of the other study and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy, “So for the next 93 years, you’re making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions” (Rosenthal). Therefore, even if people decide to deal with all the problems caused by implementation of laws for widespread use of bio-fuel for the sake of preventing climate change, they might, in fact, end up facilitating and even accelerating it. The process makes one wonder, if spending so much time and energy on it is worth it.
The alternative cannot be reverting back to traditional forms of fuel as not only are they environmentally unsustainable but also limited in supply. Thus, there is a need to look into other avenues eventually. Even Hedegaard is not completely averse to bio-fuel and provides an alternative, “We should focus on second-hand [sic] generation of bio-fuels, not first generation.” Not unlike first generation bio-fuels, second generation bio-fuels do not depend on food or oil producing crops for their raw material. Instead, they need woody plants, agricultural waste, and biomass for this. Although the production cost may be more, the additional strain on economy will be cancelled out by stable food prices and reduced expenditure on waste management. In addition, there are other sources of bio-fuel being researched upon such as Jatropha, animal gut bacteria, fungi, and aquatic phototrophs, which seems to be promising.
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It is necessary to find better sources of raw materials for large scale production of ethanol and other bio-fuels, to accept better versions of bio-fuels (second generation bio-fuels) for general use despite higher expenditure as they are cost effective in the long run, to divert more funds and time towards promising research into this field and to find out more about all the variables being affected by the use of bio-fuel. A narrow field of vision directed towards dealing with just one or two issues seems to be ineffective. What needs to be done here is to find a balanced way of producing bio-fuel that does not cause more harm than good to the environment as depicted in the comparative flow chart in figure 1 by ACS, showing the difference between blindfolded allocation of food crops and forest land for bio-fuel production and a more well calculated diversion of both, along with the environmental consequences of both methods.
To conclude, the analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of bio-fuel is quite a debatable topic. Carbon emissions, food security, preservation of forests, protection of wildlife, balance of ecosystem, climate change, and many other factors have to be considered while making a decision regarding commercial use of ethanol or any other bio-fuel and regulations have to be put in place accordingly. The information provided by this essay should push the readers to reflect upon and further their own perceptions regarding the superiority of bio-fuels.