Majoring in environmental science I have been presented with concepts that always have two different views, especially dealing with the topic of renewable energy. Most of the world sees these issues in two lenses. One side, is the environmental, anti-business, tree-hugging world. The other side is the “burn baby burn,” anti-climate change, and long-live the coal empire world. However, it’s always important to step back and try to find the middle ground in these cases. I have tried to do this with a less popular renewable energy source: Biofuel. Biofuel is a renewable energy, but it’s not all that environmentally friendly and might be more harmful than the some of the fossil-fuels we are trying to eliminate.
Bioenergy is a renewable energy source, it is more commonly known as biofuel because it is derived from organic material. Although the most well known form of biofuel is in liquid form it is also extracted and can be used in a solid and gas forms. Bioenergy makes up about 10% of the worlds energy demand. In less developed countries the main bioenergy source comes from animal feces and wood, used mainly for cooking and heat. However, burning these solids creates some of the same problems as those associated with burning fossil fuels. The soot particles that come from burning these fuels are harmful to human health. Heart disease, respiratory symptoms, asthma, chronic bronchitis or premature death are just some of the health problems that come from biofuels and gasoline.
According to Alena Buyx, a senior research associate at the School of Public Policy at University College London and head of the Emmy Noether Group in Bioethics at the University of Muenster biofuels have a sundry of issues that effect more than the environment. In the United States, the most commonly used biofuel is corn ethanol, and its effect on food prices and food security is a serious problem. As a result of designating crops to be used for biofuel, food prices have gone up. The price change is devastating to the lower class who rely on cheap foods with high levels of corn product. The United States’ decision to use crops as biofuel and change commodity prices also lead to the “Tortilla Riots” in 2007 in Mexico and shortages in other vulnerable countries.
Another issue Buyx researched was centered around biofuel use and its affect on Brazil. Brazil has a well-developed industry for producing ethanol from sugarcane and in turn is destroying the country’s forest. Deforestation is a major problem that arises with the ethanol production from sugarcane. Additionally, Brazilian sugar cane farmers are enduring some of the worst working conditions and lowest paid wages to keep up with the biofuel demand. According to Mari Aperecido de Morẵes Silva at the State University of Sao Paulo, Brazil depends on labor exploitation and slave labor in addition to lax environmental regulations and therefore has the lowest cost of production in the world.
Lastly, it’s ironic that renewable energy is often the preferred energy source when it comes to combating climate change and reducing greenhouse gases. However, Ed Gallager, the head of the government’s Renewable Fuels Agency, advised the UK to slow the introduction of biofuels until more controls were in place because the process of clearing forests to make the production of biofuel would create large levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Other environmental hazards occur with biofuels in terms of water pollution.
Large amounts of water is needed in order to cultivate crops used for biofuel and the runoff of pesticides used on the crops are contaminating water supplies. Additionally, the water that is needed in the production is causing depletion in areas that have scarce supplies. In areas that convert the biofuel ethanol spills are also a major water contaminator and end up harming humans and animals that use the contaminated water. Fish in these areas are rapidly dying off due to the contamination and have a domino effect on less developed countries that depend on fish as their staple food supply.
Although biofuel is a renewable energy, it doesn’t come with the same benefits as other renewable energies. It is more harmful then some of the fossil fuels that we rely on and Its important to research the whole process of how we use new renewables and ask if they are really solving the problem we think they are.