Biofuel is NOT "Carbon-Neutral"

Biofuel today is produced, overwhelmingly, from oil palms and sugar cane, and overwhelmingly, these plantations stand where tropical rainforest recently stood. Over a year ago, a well-documented essay entitled “Worse Than Fossil Fuel,” was published in the London Guardian by George Monbiot, an environmental activist and professor at Oxford-Brookes University in the U.K. In this article, Monbiot states “Between 1985 and 2000 the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation in Malaysia. In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest has been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares is scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5m in Indonesia.”

One square mile is equivalent to 250 hectares. So using these figures, in just two countries, deforestation for biofuel will result in the loss of at least 100,000 square miles of rainforest. Along the West African coast and in the Congo basin, similar rates of deforestation are occuring in a mad rush to grow Cassava and Oil Palm. In Brazil, deforestation for sugar cane continues to accelerate.

According to a study entitled “Biodiversity and Conservation” published by Peter J. Bryant, a professor at U.C. Irvine, by 1979, tropical rainforests had shrunk from 6.2 million square miles to 3.6 million square miles. And about that time, beginning in the Amazon, deforestation for production of biofuel began to compete with deforestation for purposes of logging and ranching. Today, tropical rainforests are reduced to 2.5 million square miles, and thanks to the biofuel bonanza, there is no end in sight. Here’s another excerpt from Monbiot’s essay:

“Before oil palms, which are small and scrubby, are planted, vast forest trees, containing a much greater store of carbon, must be felled and burnt. Having used up the drier lands, the plantations are now moving into the swamp forests, which grow on peat. When they’ve cut the trees, the planters drain the ground. As the peat dries it oxidises, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the trees. In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria.”

It is well and good to consider biofuel farmed from algae grown in ponds in the desert, or within enclosed “bioreactors,” or, perhaps, from cellusosic fibers found in agricultural waste. But none of these methods are yet financially viable, or even technically feasible. Meanwhile, the burning season has begun again, this time fueled by biofuel mania, with results that spell tragedy not only for the biota in these precious places, but also in terms of intensified droughts and less CO2 uptake. As we have argued before and will again, tropical deforestation may have more to do with whatever global warming we may be experiencing than burning of fossil fuel. So where are the environmentalists and the skeptics when you need them?

Here is how Monbiot put it, when describing the reaction to his concerns about biofuel: “The biodiesel missionaries, I discovered, are as vociferous in their denial as the executives of Exxon.”

Categorized | Energy & Fuels
11 Responses to “Biofuel is NOT "Carbon-Neutral"”
  1. BigBioBoy says:

    The biofuels you’re referring to are not carbon-neutral. Indeed, they are carbon-negative. Scientists have found that palm plantations sequester more CO2 than the rainforests!

  2. littleman says:

    BigBioBoy, you are comparing pears to apples. A mature forest is more or less carbon neutral BUT stores huge amounts of carbon. Growing palms sequesters carbon while they grow, but if you add all the carbon released by burning the precious forest + bogs you end up releasing much more carbon than what you are sequestering in the palms. You end up with much less biomass.

    You could also say that a rainforest plantation sequesters more CO2 than a palm plantation.

  3. DavidM says:

    Everyone just calm down! You are all correct – in parts. Yes, cutting down rainforest to open land for cultivation has an impact on the carbon cycle. However, the Monbiot essay has been widely criticised for the myopic view that… “Biofuel today is produced, overwhelmingly, from oil palms and sugar cane, and overwhelmingly, these plantations stand where tropical rainforest recently stood”.

    This is patently untrue. The bulk of today’s biofuel is actually produced overwhelmingly from existing agricultural land. From rapeseed in Europe to corn in USA, these fuels are not coming from the rainforest.

    Now it IS true to that the rainforest is disappearing at an increasingly alarming rate. But this is mainly due to economic imperatives in developing countries – the desire for more food and more wealth – not specifically the desire for more biofuel. The real tragedy is the loss of biodiversity, not the sequestering of carbon, as many studies have found that carbon is not locked in the rainforest indefinitely.

    The good news for all of us is that the writer of this article has gotten is really wrong in the last paragraph. Algae to Biodiesel and biomass to ethanol/biogenic fuels is already a reality and will be coming to a store near you soon! So one pressure on the rainforest will be solved – but the main threat to the rainforest remains – what do we do with the burgeoning developing work populations and their desire to “be like us”.

  4. Ed Ring says:

    David M.: My point isn’t to argue about the role of CO2 in global warming, my point is that in combatting global warming we have ripped out hundreds of thousands of square miles of tropical rainforests, and all those environmentalists who used to sport “save the rainforest” bumper stickers on their cars, etc., are strangely silent about this. I believe that if we are experiencing global warming, much of the warming may be caused by the destruction of over 50% of the planet’s tropical rainforests – not just because of the CO2 impact of deforestation, but because of the greater heat absorption and less moisture on open land compared to rainforest. I’m also convinced that tropical deforestation is the reason for many severe regional droughts.

    In any case, I would be very interested in hearing from you regarding what companies are close to commercializing biofuel from algae. I’ve seen a lot of websites and a lot of press releases, but I am not aware of one company, anywhere, that is yet able to grow algae and refine it into biofuel in a remotely commercial manner. I would love to be wrong in my assertion that this technology is not there yet. So who are they, and where? Back to you.

  5. pete best says:


    Second generation biofuel (using microbes to break down the entire plant) is not yet a commercial reality, it will take a decade before they come online and another x years before they offset any measureable amount of oil. Meanwhile we can grow second generation crops all over the world and produce the biofuel locally. Remember biofuel only contains 70% of the energy of oil and is not carbon neutral due to pesticides, herbicides, fertiliser, transport and processing costs etc but it is out best bet for a greener world so long as we can save biodiversity as well.

    I shudder to think of the combined effects of increased CO2 production (not enough evidence for climate change – ha) from fossil fuel burning and reducing the earth’s ability to sequester it (only the oceans can save us now) that all of this might eventually have for our warming world.

    Get ready for the average of 3 C atmosphere rise and pray that the methane clathrates stay put.

  6. S Houston says:

    Algae to Bio Fuel

    Using CO2 enrichment:
    gas fired – 4-5 acres/Mega watt
    coal fired – 10-12 acres/Mega watt (due to the higher emissions of coal)

    Annual Yield/Acre estimates: biodiesel 8k gallons(US) + ethanol 5k gallons(US) + 70 tons feed/fertilizer (This is a mid range estimate … theoretically biodiesel yield might be as high as 15k gallons per acre year). This requires enclosed “bioreactors” (solar collectors) to protect the genetic integrity of the less virulent HIGH YIELD algae strains.

    That is about a 10X improvement over oil palm in yield per acre and about 40X the yield of soye for bio diesel … then add in the ethanol and feed also produced.
    is a good place to start. Arizon Power has a pilot program and plans to go to production in 2009. If I remember correctly it is 1.000 mega watt facility.

    The other beauty of this technology with CO2 enrichment is that up to 40% of the flue CO2 can be captured and recycled into the “new” bio fuels, thereby reducing emission from the combustion process. If retrofitted to existing industry, there could be significant abatement.

    Further, the “algae to bio fuel” is independent of the normal food chain!

    I do aggree that considerable care is necessary in designing and deploying the technology correctly! The key is that it should be a National and Worldwide PRIORITY to expedite this technology to maturity and full production!

    Also, genetic research to develop more virulant and higher yield algae strains that can thrive outside of the enclosed “bioreactors” is a major priority.

  7. Paul says:

    One of the factors I never see adequately accounted for is the energy used in converting the raw fermented ethanol into the anhydrous state necessary for fuel use. It requires the expenditure of significant quantities of energy during the distillation and subsequent drying-hrough-a-molecular-sieve phases (being mindful to observe that the molecular sieves must also be regenerated at high temperature).

    Also, I have not seen an adequate energy audit on the production of fertilizers which includes the energy costs of mining and refining of minerals, production of nutrient nitrogen, fertilizer transport and application, plus the energy cost of treating those farm runoffs that make it to a treatment facility, and those runoffs which result in pollution of surface waters.

    I suspect that if a meticulous, all-inclusive energy audit of ethanol is produced it would appear as a losing proposition. The same goes for bio-diesel. Both, I would suspect, end up being very far from carbon neutrality.

    I think the algae looks promising from the total energy prospective. But I think green hydrogen looks even better. I recently read a news release that researchers at GE have induced blue/green algae to produce gaseous hydrogen as a metabolic waste product. This trick was achieved mostly by modifying the pH of their environment and driving the metabolic processes into the near anaerobic state. If this could be scaled up into large-scale bio reactors, the impact could be momentous. Great care would, of course, have to be used to assure that the algae could never be released into the environment; such an event could, over the long haul, conceivably end up returning the earth to the reducing environment that existed before photosynthesizing organisms appeared on the scene if the hydrogen producers outcompeted and displaced the photosynthesizers.

  8. James says:

    I am new to hear and yet to find out how for instant – planting 1,4million palm oil trees on non-forested land, say 10,000 ha is bad for the environment that I keep hearing about – Palm Oil industry ruining environment, Palm Oil is not carbon neutral. Say no to Oil palm even though it is one of the most usuable products that are on our shelves.

    Personally I believe the facts are not there and would call on anyone who has more scientific information to pass on about oil palm trees v rainforest and sequestering facts etc.

    Also does anyone know if you can gain carbon credits for palm oil trees and what that would be then per ha or per tree in comparison to the rain forest.

  9. Matthew Johnson says:

    Once the rainforest has gone thats it, no turning back. We can mince words about carbon but lets not be so short sighted, you can hardly say replacing the rainforest with mono plantations is a good thing unless all you care about is money.

    Mankind is heading towards a catastrophe on a global scale due to ignorance, arrogance, and pure blindness towards the bigger picture.

    Take a look at that CNN news clip:

    Its enough to make you cry.

  10. Kevin says:

    There are different classes of biofuels, some of which like corn is not carbon neutral. Others ARE so you cant generalise it this way.

    If the biofuels are derived from lignocellulose waste (non edible parts) of food crops which are already being planted anyway, its a good way of making use of this waste as fuel. It would otherwise be burnt to make fertilizer. Following the authors logic we might as well say that all forms of agriculture is not carbon neutral because you have to clear the land to plant crops and hence incur a carbon debt from doing so.

    Another class of crop which is carbon neutral is Jatropha. It grows on non-arable land which you didnt have to clear in the first place. So this biofuel crop (weed) actually helps to restore marginal land to land which you can plant sth on and make fuel in the process.

    It helps if the authors of such articles are actually scientists who work in this field. Otherwise they spount public miscommunication.


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