Biodiesel: Not Sustainable if it’s Industrial

Converting a Hummer to bio-diesel, as this one has been, is like having a diet drink after gorging at McPiggy’s. As it turns out, converting an industry to bio-diesel makes about as much sense. (Photo by Paul Keller/Flickr)

In 2003, the European Union threw all its weight behind bio-diesel — a fuel manufactured mostly from plant seeds — as the sustainable replacement for fossil fuel. The members created the world’s largest bio-diesel industry, and now to their sorrow are discovering the truth in what has been a mantra of the Daily Impact: renewables aren’t sustainable if they’re industrial. The realization may destroy the $13 billion industry.

The idea of bio-diesel is compelling. Its raw material is grown in fields, and thus renewable; its combustion produces fewer emissions than fossil fuels — in the case of carbon, only whatever carbon they absorbed while growing, allowing the argument that the books are balanced. Since the raw materials for bio-diesel — rapeseed, sunflower seed, mustard, flax and the like — are not used for human staple foods, unlike corn-based ethanol, its manufacture does not directly contribute to human hunger by raising prices and decreasing supply. Key word in the previous sentence: “directly.”

A number of recent studies, commissioned by the European Commission and held as state secrets by them (they leaked, of course), have revealed the Achilles’ Heel of the industry. Its name is ILUC — or indirect land-use change. Industrial-strength bio-diesel production requires, and makes profitable, the planting of so much land to its feedstocks, that two unintended consequences ensue: the land is taken out of the production of foodstuff, thus indirectly contributing to hunger; and marginal lands are converted to its purpose, often by the burning down of forests.

According to one of seven reports delivered to the industry and/or the European Commission in the past two years (four of which have been leaked to Reuters), “The land use change effects make nearly half of the expected gains of shifting from fossil fuels to renewable bio-fuels disappear.”  The Commission is reportedly considering measures to mitigate these unwanted effects, and doing so, according to one of the reports, “would have significant implications for the existing EU bio-diesel industry. The viability of existing investments could be affected in the long run, as the availability of conventional bio-diesel feedstocks would be extremely reduced.”

None of these problems arise, of course, if bio-diesel is selected as an energy source for a diversified, sustainable farm or community. Intelligent allocation of soil and water resources could easily balance demands for food and energy among the resources at hand. The equation will work differently in different places, but it can work.

What does not work, and cannot work in the long run, is industrialization. The relentless search for economies of scale create equally large long-term risks, as bio-diesel has just demonstrated yet again. And as it is, the industry never came close to its own ambition of replacing fossil fuels, it managed to create an additive. All bio-fuels, including ethanol, managed to provide less than two per cent of the world’s transport fuel in 2008.

Which is not to say that bio-fuel could not provide 100% of the transport fuel for the above-mentioned diversified, sustainable farm or community, without doing environmental harm or reducing food supplies. It’s only when it gets industrial that it’s not sustainable.

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3 Responses to Biodiesel: Not Sustainable if it’s Industrial

  1. observer says:

    Hmm…support of current biodiesel does pave the way for….maybe algae based biodiesel. Or support for universities and students to pursue alternative energies. Lets not cut off the hand because it is holding the wrong thing. Without continued support innovation slows and stales.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      You’re going to have a hard time convincing me that the magnates of the bio-diesel industry are funding research into a different, better product, such as algae. As an industry, the only thing bio-diesel paves the way to are profits for the companies and damages for everyone else. Industry is all about keeping things exactly as they are, and innovation is not what it is interested in. But I hope you did not understand me to be saying anything negative about bio-diesel. It’s a great solution for the right problem in the right setting, and those who need and want it should use it. It’s the industrial scale that’s problematic.

  2. Gail Zawacki says:

    There have been no, repeat no, toxicological studies of the emissions produced from burning biofuel and every indication from the little research that has been done to indicate that the resulting PAN’s produce significantly WORSE and more persistent tropospheric ozone than we already have from fossil fuels – ozone which is currently causing epidemics of cancer, emphysema, asthma, allergies and other illnesses – and costing billions of dollars annually in stunted annual crop yield and quality. No one has ever quantified what cumulative damage from multiple seasons of exposure is doing to trees, which aside from fruit, nuts, lumber and shade, happen to constitute the most important carbon sink AND source of oxygen on the planet.

    Research into production of biofuels should procede in tandem with serious research into the consequences of the air pollution that burning it will produce.

    Just sayin’