Doubts cast on biofuels’ air quality claims


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.

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.

Chris Malins of the International Council on Clean Transportation said in a statement: “Peat degradation under oil palm is a major source of emissions from biodiesel production.  Recognising that emissions are larger than previously thought will help regulators such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), European Commission (EC) and California Air Resources Board (CARB) identify which biofuel pathways are likely to lead to sustainable greenhouse gas emissions reductions”.

Ross Morrison, of the University of Leicester Department of Geography, said in a statement: “Although the climate change impacts of palm oil production on tropical peatland are becoming more widely recognised, this research shows that estimates of emissions have been drawn from a very limited number of scientific studies, most of which have underestimated the actual scale of emissions from oil palm.  These results show that biofuels causing any significant expansion of palm on tropical peat will actually increase emissions relative to petroleum fuels.  When produced in this way, biofuels do not represent a sustainable fuel source”.


The EU initially set a target for biofuel use equivalent to 2% of the fossil fuel market by 2005 and 5.75% by the end of 2010. The target for renewable energy sources in transport for 2020 is now set at 10%.

Use of biodiesel is growing steadily across the EU, which as a whole is about halfway to meeting its 10% biofuel target by 2020. Slovakia is already on the cusp of meeting the goal, followed by Austria and France.

The European Biodiesel Board, a group that promotes the industry, says the fuels derived from plants improve urban air quality, cut greenhouse gases and help farmers.

The industry organisation says biodiesel is low in sulphur, cuts carbon emissions by 65%-90% compared to conventional diesel, and produces far less particulate emissions that spoil the air people breathe. And unlike fossil fuels, it is biodegradable.

After criticism that biofuels imported from developing countries were taxing land and water, and diverting attention from food to fuel crops, the EU’s policies encourage more sustainable fuel sources, such as vegetable oil waste from restaurant and industrial use.

It is an open debate about how much good biofuels do for the environment. While they emit lower carbon emissions in transport, biofuels use for home heating are a leading contributor to sulphur dioxide, a main contributor to poor urban air quality in the EU, according the to European Environment Agency’s latest air quality report.

Growth in the European market mainly relies on imported plant oils that are expected to surge 21% in 2011 to a record 2.42 million metric tonnes, with Argentina accounting for much of the supply followed by Indonesia.

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