Biofuels are produced from biomass, renewable organic material from plants or animals. The most commonly used biofuels are (1) fuel ethanol, made from crops like corn, wheat, sugarcane and sugar beet; and (2) biodiesel, made from vegetable oils like soy, rapeseed and palm.

Government biofuel targets have led to increased demand for vegetable oils with high deforestation risks like soy and palm oil. However tThis can lead to very perverse outcomes. Converting peat swamp forests in SE Asia to oil palm plantations for biofuel creates a carbon debt by releasing 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas reduction that the biofuel would provide.

Global Supply & Demand

Both the US and the EU have targets for a biofuels mix in standard fuels, and increasing use in energy production is also stimulating the market. Fuel ethanol is the most widely used biofuel globally. More than 40% of Brazilian vehicles run on bioethanol. In Europe, biodiesel and pure vegetable oils account for 85% of biofuel use – over half of this is produced from rapeseed oil, but soy and palm oil are also used.
The US government is likely to continue subsidising corn production to produce biofuels, making it uncompetitive to grow soy in the US and contributing to a shift in production overseas and increasingly into areas formerly occupied by tropical forests.
Bioenergy plants are being developed across Europe and Asia. Neste Oil is building the world’s largest renewable diesel plants in Singapore using palm oil as a feedstock.
High fuel prices in the mid 2000s lead Asian governments to turn to locally produced biofuels. The upward effect this had on food prices lead to caps being imposed on the amount of palm oil being used for this purpose.
The European Parliament and other institutions are promoting so-called ‘second generation’ biofuels, derived from wood fibre (cellulosic). This will require reliable new wood supply and could have a dramatic impact on natural forests, especially in regions like Africa and Asia, as they are cleared to make way for industrial wood plantations.

Land Conversion & Sustainability

According to research published in the journal Science, converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food crop–based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels. In contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and can offer immediate and sustained emissions reductions.
Many of the main crops used for biofuels are grown in large scale agricultural monocultures which can have serious environmental, social and economic impacts on local communities, including the depletion of water sources due to changes in the hydrological cycle, harm to rivers and streams, air and water pollution due to the unregulated use of pesticides and other agrochemicals, and the loss of biodiversity.
Large scale conversion of land for biofuel production is a major cause of concern where it is currently being used for food production. The loss of subsistence farming has severe social impacts, and there have been cases of displacement of entire communities, violations of human, labour and environmental rights, and violence as a means of subduing complaints.
Concern about biofuels largely relates to land management issues and whether agricultural land is best used for the purpose of energy generation. Views diverge, influenced by perceptions of global food security, projected population growth and concerns about how climate change will impact the world’s major food growing areas.
National, regional and global policy objectives overlap and there is a lack of strategic planning for the use of land. Land is often cleared for market uses which are not sustainable longer-term, but once degraded the land is extremely costly to regenerate.

3rd Party Certification

Sustainability criteria for biofuels, bioenergy and biomass are being developed although issues related to indirect land clearance and the age of plantation sites have not been successfully addressed.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels is a new global multi-stakeholder process, based in Switzerland, producing voluntary environmental and social standards, to help businesses and consumers identify and purchase the “better biofuels.” Members include major corporations and social and environmental advocates. The standards build upon the soy, palm oil and sugar roundtables; the draft is available for review at the RSB website, and field testing begins in 2009.

Feedstocks used for European biodiesel consumption (tonnnes). All the palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, and 36% of the soy comes from Brazil