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Provocations – The environmental implications of biodiesel

Posted in Opinion, Research by Ferne Edwards on April 2nd, 2007

Post by guest author, Paul Martin, author of (2006), "Biodiesel for the Small Producer".

Biofuels or specifically biodiesel which I have been involved with for many years presents us with the opportunity to reduce or increase emissions. Biodiesel is available at approximately 100 bowsers in Australia and one can drive all over Germany without a drop of fossil diesel needed. Biodiesel can be made by the tankful at home (see the Grown Fuel website) or by the ton loads twenty-four hours per day. Following the "bigger-makes-more-money" theme, Australia could have the capacity for 1 billion litres of installed biodiesel production by the end of 2007 – if this plan was not flawed by the drought, a movement to decentralised production and the stabilising (for now) oil price. The movement to decentralise production by making biodiesel on a smaller scale in regional areas has been promoted by people who grow oil seed crop. 

However, like many of the emerging "green" industries, we believe that they are much better for the environment, this is not always the case…. Emerging "green" technologies must be considered within their specific contexts and may not represent the only or best choice for all occasions.

For example, there are many different sources of biodiesel which have different implications in terms of environmental and social outcomes. Life-cycle emissions from biodiesel made from used cooking oil (a waste product from deep frying food) is the best automotive fuel available. Emissions from growing the oil seed crop are attributed to the food production and not to the fuel, making it pretty much unbeatable.

Biodiesel made from a purpose grown crop has to include the emissions from the tractor that seeded and harvested it, the truck that carted it in addition to the processing, use of fertiliser, pesticides, etc. With all these costs considered, biodiesal made from purpose grown crops actually stacks up very high and compares well to the emissions produced from fossil fuels.

This measurement of carbon emissions is more difficult to calculate when one considers the methods to grow and harvest the crop. Soil science is complicated just like climate change. New studies looking at the amount of carbon locked up in soil show that more carbon can be stored in the soil of a forest than the trees, like-wise oil crops grown to displace fossil diesel can lock up between 2 to 5 times the amount of carbon that it displaces in the diesel by storing it in the soil. The carbon reduction varies dependant on the method used to grow and harvest the crop.

So far, so good – grow a crop, displace carbon AND lock up carbon in the soil! But what if a rainforest has to be cleared to make room for the oil crop? Not only do we loose biodiversity, expedite the third great extinction of species on this planet but we also loose the carbon locked up in the trees and, as we are coming to only recently understand, the carbon store in the soil. Unfortunately Oil Palm grows very well where tropical rainforest used to and palm oil yields are also the best of any oil crop. The Indonesian and Malaysian territories of Sumatra and Borneo have been clearfell logged and burned or simply just burned to make room for palm oil for many years now for cooking and cosmetics. Does the name Palmolive sound familiar? Biofuels, the new market, is now making the demand for palm oil ever bigger with mandates in up to 30 countries for the use of biofuels.

So when you choose your biofuel, the question to ask is, "Where does this fuel originate from?"