This article is part of our special report Air Quality.
When the European Commission began pressing for a dramatic expansion in the use of biofuels in transport and energy several years ago, it was seen as a win-win situation: a way to help farmers, create energy security, cut greenhouse emissions and improve air quality. But even that last claim is no longer taken for granted.
The 2003 biofuels directive and the 2009 renewable energy legislation called for a steady shift to plant-based fuels, advancing Europe’s leading role in cutting fossil fuel consumption and combating climate change.
Yet the policies have faced mounting criticism amid evidence that biofuels are not as effective at reducing greenhouse gases as long claimed, and concern that cultivation harms the ecology of developing countries that are leading exporters of plant fuels.
Fresh criticism of transport fuels
Britain’s Local Government Association, for example, has questioned national biodiesel targets in transport on the grounds that emissions of fine particulates were higher than in traditional diesel.
A report prepared earlier this year for Britain’s Environment Department showed mixed benefits on air quality of biodiesel and bioethanol.
Separate research shows that biofuel production – such as land clearing, cultivation, fertiliser use and shipping – may negate any advantages that biofuels for transport use have in cutting smog and greenhouse gases.
In a new study, researchers at the University of Leicester who examined palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia contend that the end product may even be worse for the planet than traditional transport fuels.
Their findings show that palm oil – a leading source for biodiesel – is as carbon intensive as petrol, with a 60% increase in land use emissions resulting from cultivation of tropical forest.
The research should raise alerts for European policy-makers, said Susan Page, head of the Physical Geography Department at Leicester and a lead author of the study.
“What I’m saying is we have to consider the whole picture,” Page said.
“In this case, probably we’ve made some wrong decisions in Europe over the last few years where we’ve taken a more general view about biofuels and not considered individual cases, which in the case of oil palm, is leading to a situation where we might as well just burn petrol or diesel rather than biofuels because the net greenhouse gas emissions are not going to be any different.”
The British researchers acknowledge that their study was relatively limited in scope and concentrates mainly on palm oil grown on lush tropical peatlands in Indonesia and Malaysia.
The soggy peat in these environments act like sponges that suck up carbon dioxide and other gases, creating a natural buffer against global warming. When these soggy peatlands are cleared, drained and cultivated for palm oil, the trapped carbon dioxide is released, along with gases like ozone-depleting nitrous oxide.
Bad air days
Palm oil cultivation also has other consequences in countries like Indonesia, which ranks 20th in forest loss and 21st in urban pollution levels in the UN’s 2011 Human Development Index of 187 nations.
What happens in Indonesia and other leading tropical producers of plant oils has global consequences, scientists told EURACTIV, noting:
- Clearing and draining peatlands releases grit and toxins into the atmosphere, creating dust plumes that affect local and global air quality.
- Seasonal fires and the intentional burning of forests and undergrowth to clear land is a perennial problem in Indonesia, with pernicious effects on ambient air quality. In one of the most serious incidents, in 1997, the United Nations said more than 40,000 people were sickened in southeast Asia from haze that originated in Indonesia.
- Much of the plant oil, and growing amounts of wood chips and other biomass, is sent to European markets from southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa, and the transportation adds to the ecological footprint.
These consequences may not directly affect the air European breathe, but they do add to the ecological footprint of fuels consumed in the European market, prompting environmental groups to pressure the European Commission to weigh such impacts its policies have on developing countries.
Oxfam, in a 22 September report on biofuels, urged the EU to scrap its biofuel targets and to set sustainability standards to ensure that production has “no adverse impact” on global air quality, water, land and food supplies.
Leicester University’s Page says European policy-makers should consider the broader impacts of their energy and pollution policies.
“I’m not saying it’s a mistake to consider transferring from fossil fuels to biofuels per se,” Page said. “That would be a very naïve statement. What I’m saying is that if you are going to do that, one must take into account the full greenhouse gas implications and emissions implications.”
Fireplaces are bad for you
Meanwhile, air quality worries have extended beyond biofuels to cover wood used for household heating.
Health experts are raising alarms about the impact that bio-energy has on air quality, particularly in Northern and Central Europe where the popularity of wood and timber products for home heating is soaring.
European Environment Agency officials warned on 9 November that rising levels of biomass in home heating poses a threat to air quality. Wood smoke contains fine particulates and toxins such as nitrogen and sulphur oxides, carbon monoxide and dioxins with implications for both indoor and outdoor air.
Though well meaning, biofuel consumer trends and policies overlook human health consequences, says one Finnish health expert.
Juha Pekkanen, a physician and research professor at the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland, says the popularity of wood stoves in his country and others in Europe poses a public health threat.
“We’re going back to the old days when everyone was warming up their house with their own furnace and we’re going to go back to the really bad pollution days we had then,” Pekkanen said by telephone.