Personal tools
 
Views

Debate: Biofuel

From Debatepedia

Jump to: navigation, search
[Digg]
[reddit]
[Delicious]
[Facebook]

What are the pros and cons of biofuels as a solution to global warming?

Background and context

Biofuel is defined as solid, liquid or gas fuel derived from recently-dead biological material, whereas fossil fuels are derived from long-dead biological material. Theoretically, biofuels can be produced from any (biological) carbon source; although, the most common sources are photosynthetic plants. Globally, biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles and cooking stoves. Biofuel industries are expanding in Europe, Asia and the Americas. See Wikipedia's "Biofuel" article for more background.

The main debate regarding biofuels centers around whether they are a good means to reversing global climate change and helping replace oil, or at least reduce oil prices. Biofuels have become increasingly attractive in recent years because they offer the possibility of both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping replace oil. This possibility exists primarily in the use of biofuels in vehicles and other forms of transportation that utilize petroleum products. Biofuels, therefore, are potentially helpful in so far as they can replace the use of petroleum in transportation.

The questions that frame this debate include some of the following: Do biofuels emit fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline? Does the production of biofuels release significant greenhouse gases? Can biofuel production and use be expected to get cleaner over time? What are the effects of biofuel production and use on local ecosystems? Is the land-area used for biofuel production a serious concern? Does biofuel production incentivize deforestation? What are the economics of biofuel production? Can it compete with gasoline and other alternative forms of energy? Does it make sense to subsidize biofuel companies? Are biofuels a viable replacement for oil? Can they help reduce the price of oil? Do they help or harm food prices and shortages? Is it feasible and reasonable to construct a new biofuel infrastructure? Are biofuel vehicles practical to use? Do they perform well? How do biofuels compare with other alternative forms of energy? Are there better approaches to fighting global warming and solving the global energy crisis that we should focus on?

See Wikipedia's article on biofuels for more background.

Contents

[Edit]
[Delete Subquestion section]
[Add new subquestion section]
[Move subquestion section down]

Scalability: Can biofuels serve as a major energy source, relieving foreign oil dependency?

[Add New]

Yes

  • Biofuels are produced domestically. Farmers typically produce biofuels domestically, reducing our dependence on unstable foreign sources of oil.
  • Algae biofuel may prove efficient enough to replace oil. While there is no scientific consensus about it, much less real experience with growing algae on a large-scale, the proponents of microalgae based biofuel believe that it can be more than an order of magnitude more efficient than current widely used biofuels, making it a viable candidate for replacing oil.


[Add New]

No

  • Biofuels are not viable enough to relieve foreign oil dependencies. Biofuels can only have an impact on foreign oil dependencies if the fuel can scale. There are many obstacles to this that are argued in this case. If biofuels are not really "greener" than gasoline, the case for replacing gasoline with biofuels would be significantly undermined, as it would not move us forward in solving global warming. If biofuels are uneconomical, then scaling biofuels as a replacement for foreign oil would be impossible? Finally, biofuels depend on scarce land-resources, which make it difficult for biofuels to scale in a way that could significantly relieve foreign oil dependencies.


[Edit]
[Delete Subquestion section]
[Add new subquestion section]
[Move subquestion section down]
[Move subquestion section up]

Global warming: Can biofuels help combat global warming?

[Add New]

Yes

  • Biofuels burn more cleanly, cun cut greenhouse gas emissions Traditional petroleum-based gasoline and diesel fuels emit substantial amounts of greenhouse gases. Biofuels, by contrast, burn much more cleanly, emitting far fewer greenhouse gases from the tail-pipe. Any such reduction in emissions is valuable in the face of global warming, and should be embraced.
  • Carbon neutral biofuels only emit CO2 they draw from atmosphere Biofuels are less polluting than fossil fuels because CO2 is absorbed in the process of photosynthesis by the very plants that are being used to produce biofuel. Another way to think of this is that, in the cycle of this process, plants are grown which absorb C02 from the atmosphere to photosynthesize and grow. When these plants are converted into biofuel and then burned, the C02 that is released into the atmosphere is equivalent to the C02 that was absorbed by the plant in the process of photosynthesis. This means that the amount of C02 released is equivalent to the amount absorbed, and that biofuels are, thus, carbon neutral.
  • Biofuels can power biofuel production (self-sustaining and carbon neutral). It is true that a significant amount of energy is used to produce biofuels. And, it is true that many fossil fuels are currently being used to produce biofuel. Yet, it is entirely possible to move toward cleaner sources of energy for the process of producing biofuels. It is even possible to use biofuels themselves to drive the machinery that produces biofuel. This would make biofuel production facilities entirely self-sustaining, which would cut-down on the transportation of any fuels to the site of biofuel manufacturing, a process that would emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Most importantly, by utilizing biofuels to produce biofuels, the entire production process will be carbon neutral.
  • Biofuels can be produced locally, reducing transport/emissions. "The Case for Biofuel". Yappa Ding Ding. 22 April 2008: "Biofuel can be produced and used locally, unlike oil which typically must be shipped long distances and refined in central locations." This reduces transportation costs as well as greenhouse gas emissions.


[Add New]

No

  • Developing new land for biofuels can release greenhouse gases "The Problem With Biofuels". Washington Post. 27 Feb. 2008 - "separate studies released this month by Princeton University and the Nature Conservancy...show that ethanol may be even more dangerous for the environment than fossil fuels are. As the Princeton study points out, clearing previously untouched land to grow biofuel crops releases long-sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. While planting corn and sugar cane in already tilled land is fine, a problem arises when farmers churn up new land to grow more fuel or the food and feed displaced by biofuel crops."
  • Not enough land exists for biofuels; can't have an impact. There is not enough land to produce a significant amount of biofuels. As a result, biofuels cannot be produced on a massive scale and cannot significantly replace gasoline as a cleaner alternative fuel.
  • Producing biofuels requires more energy than they generate. Factoring in the energy needed to grow crops and then convert them into biofuels, Cornell University researcher David Pimental concludes that the net balance is negative. His 2005 study found that producing ethanol from corn required 29 percent more energy than the end product itself is capable of generating. He drew similar conclusions regarding biodiesel from soybeans. He says, "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel."[1]
  • It is better to plant trees and leave them. It is argued that burning biofuels does not, in the end, release C02 into the atmosphere, because the CO2 released is canceled out by the CO2 that is consumed by the plants to make the biofuel. Yet, wouldn't it be better to plant trees and other plant-matter, and not burn it at all? This would draw more C02 from the atmosphere and actually reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, thus helping reverse global warming, rather than merely have a neutral impact.


[Edit]
[Delete Subquestion section]
[Add new subquestion section]
[Move subquestion section down]
[Move subquestion section up]

Land-use: Does the production of biofuels use reasonable amount of land?

[Add New]

Yes

  • Biofuel requires open-land, which is often found in poor countries. William Saletan. "The Case for Turning Crops into Fuel". Slate. 7 July 2007 - "If you want to help poor people, biofuel beats the heck out of oil. In a biofuel economy, the chief asset is open land. Who has open land? Poor countries. Latin America has sugar cane. Africa and Asia have cassava. Switchgrass, which grows in dry regions, will level the playing field further. Bush says switchgrass will empower the Western United States. That's nice, but the real story is that it'll empower the Southern Hemisphere."


[Add New]

No

  • Biofuel production requires too much land. Matthew Brown, an energy consultant and former energy program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures: “Replacing only five percent of the nation’s diesel consumption with biodiesel would require diverting approximately 60 percent of today’s soy crops to biodiesel production. That’s bad news for tofu lovers.”
  • There are more efficient ways how to harness solar energy than Biofuels. Biofuels are basically a way of harnessing solar energy; the energy that is stored in the biomass, which is later converted to biofuel, comes from the solar irradiation. While the fact that this way directly produces fuel is beneficial (the fuel can be easily stored), the overall power conversion efficiency offered by biofuels is fairly low, just a small fraction of that offered by e.g. photovoltaics and other technologies. That's why the areas required to provide a given amount of energy from biofuels are order(s) of magnitude larger than those required by e.g. photovoltaics.


[Edit]
[Delete Subquestion section]
[Add new subquestion section]
[Move subquestion section down]
[Move subquestion section up]

Ecosystems: Do biofuels help or harm local ecosystems?

[Add New]

Yes

  • Genetically modified crops help produce more biofuel more efficiently. William Saletan. "The Case for Turning Crops into Fuel". Slate. 7 July 2007 - "What makes Castro and other radicals so conservative about biofuel? The same thing that troubles Bush about human embryo research: the industrialization of biology. For the right, the chief concern is humanity. For the left, it's nature. That's why Castro worries that genetic crop modifications by ethanol conglomerates will unleash "transgenetic contamination" and put "food production at risk."
True, biotechnology can go wrong. But it can also go wonderfully right. Scientists are learning to split corn so it can make ethanol and still feed animals. We're studying the use of microbes to extract fuel from straw and wood waste. We're trying to grow biofuel in algae. We're even learning to make fuel from animal fat and excrement."


[Add New]

No

  • Biofuels emit more particulate pollutants than gasoline/diesel Josh Dorner, spokesman for the Sierra Club, in 2007 - "Biodiesel is worse than regular diesel in terms of particulate matter - one of the pollutants more dangerous to human health. And due to its evaporative properties, ethanol at low concentrations can, in fact, worsen ground-level ozone and other air pollutants."[2]
  • Forests and ecosystems are cleared to make room for biofuel crops. The demand for biofuels incentivizes the construction of biofuel farms. When land is scarce, there is an incentive to clear areas of forests, rainforest, and other natural habitat to make room for biofuel crops. This is bad for local ecosystems and for global warming.
  • Bioengineering of crops for biofuels does environmental harm. The bioengineering of crops to produce the greatest amount of biomass for biofuels can have unintended consequences. These plants can spread beyond the confines of a farm and destabilize ecosystems as a result.


[Edit]
[Delete Subquestion section]
[Add new subquestion section]
[Move subquestion section down]
[Move subquestion section up]

Economics: What are the economic pros and cons of biofuels?

[Add New]

Yes

  • Biofuels are abudnant, renewable, and will never run out Since biofuels are derived from agricultural crops, they are renewable and will never run out. This compares favorably against fossil fuels, which will run-out eventually. This means that biofuels can become a long-term, sustainable solution to waning oil supplies.
  • Biofuels will increase energy supply so decrease prices. Any increase in energy supply will relieve demand for other related energy resources. This will help lower prices and relieve related economic strains.
  • The biofuel industry will create domestic jobs. Moving to a biofuel economy will foster jobs in many ways, including the manufacture of new biofuel cars, the growing and creation of biofuel, and the construction of a biofuel infrastructure. The petroleum industry sends most jobs related to the extraction and refinement of gasoline and diesel abroad to oil-producing countries. Bioefuel industries, conversely, locate everything related to the growing, refinement, and transportation of biofuels domestically. This means that all related job-creation and economic benefits will occur domestically.
  • Biofuels will promote rural development. By stimulating jobs in rural areas, biofuels promote development in these areas. This will help resist some of the trends showing increased settlement in large cities. Such urbanization has many costs socially, and should be resisted.
[Add New]

No

  • Shifting to a biofuel economy would take decades. "The Pros and Cons of Biofuels". Earth Talk. - "A wholesale societal shift from gasoline to biofuels, given the number of gas-only cars already on the road and the lack of ethanol or biodiesel pumps at existing filling stations, would take some time."
  • Biofuel development increases demand for scarce water resources. "The Problem With Biofuels". Washington Post. 27 Feb. 2008 - "Massive amounts of water are needed to irrigate cornfields, setting up potential competition between farms and homes. The runoff of pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers used by farmers could lead to increased pollution and oxygen-depleted waterways."
  • The main proponents of biofuel are farmers and their lobbies. It is simply important to be cautious of the self-interests of advocates of biofuels who are connected to the agricultural industry and have a direct financial interest in the success of a biofuel industry. These groups may not have environmental interests at heart.
  • The production of biofuels is unreliable. - Biofuels rely on agricultural harvest, and as it is commonly known, agricultural products are largely influenced by local weather conditions of the year. Any natural disasters could spoil a whole year's hard work.
  • "Despite ample investment, production costs remain high and commercialisation elusive." [The Economist, "Coming up empty", March 27th 2010]
[Edit]
[Delete Subquestion section]
[Add new subquestion section]
[Move subquestion section down]
[Move subquestion section up]

Subsidies: Is it OK to subsidize biofuels?

[Add New]

Yes

  • Subsidizing biofuels helps lower gas prices and save taxpayers money. Robert Zubrin. "In defense of biofuels". The New Atlantis. Spring 2008 - "if the price of oil would be about 15 percent higher were it not for biofuels—then that comes to a savings of about $18 per barrel at current oil prices. The United States will import about 5 billion barrels of oil this year. Saving $18 for each barrel, that adds up to a savings for the country as a whole of $90 billion in foreign oil payments this year, and a reduction in OPEC global revenues overall of more than $180 billion. This, in addition to cutting another $20 billion from our oil bill by reducing the amount of petroleum that we import. Not bad, considering the pittance that American taxpayers actually shell out for the nation’s corn ethanol program: only about $4 billion per year, through a subsidy of 51 cents per gallon."


[Add New]

No

  • Government subsidies are being wasted on biofuels. Huge government subsidies are being directed at biofuel industries that could be better spent elsewhere. In addition, it should be recognized that any industry that requires heavy subsidization, as biofuels do, are generally more likely to be unsustainable long-term in the market-place.


[Edit]
[Delete Subquestion section]
[Add new subquestion section]
[Move subquestion section down]
[Move subquestion section up]

Food/prices: Does the creation of biofuels harm food prices?

[Add New]

Yes

  • Food sources are not required to produce biofuel. There are other ways to create biodiesel than through food sources, such as algea. 10 million gallons of biodiesal could be created by only a 100-acre feild of algea.
  • Biofuel crops do not harm food production and can actually help Crops for biofuels need not harm the production of other crops, particularly if it is done strategically. In addition, sometimes biofuel crop production can actually increase food production, because not all of the crops created for biofuel are actually made into biofuel, sometimes because biofuel demand is lower than expected.
  • Biofuels lower petroleum prices, reducing food transport costs/prices. By helping relieve demand pressures on oil, biofuels can reduce petroleum prices. This reduces food transportation costs, which helps lower food prices.
  • Many forms of biofuel do not use food sources. While corn, grains, and sugar are common biomass sources of biofuel, on-edible sources include switchgrass and trees (cellulosic) as well as algae. It is wrong, therefore, to pin biofuels as always a threat to food-sources. Indeed, as The Economist reckons, it is possible to make ethanol from cellulose, the abundant, inedible portion of most crops. "Using inedible inputs avoids fights about diverting food crops for fuel..." [The Economist, "Coming up empty", March 27th 2010]



[Add New]

No


[Edit]
[Delete Subquestion section]
[Add new subquestion section]
[Move subquestion section down]
[Move subquestion section up]

Practicality: Are biofuels practical to use?

[Add New]

Yes

  • Biofuels are an easy transition for people unlike other renewables Renewables such as hydrogen, solar or wind entail complicated equipment and a certain cultural shift among consumers and users. Biofuels, on the other hand, are easy for people and businesses to transition to without special apparatus or a change in vehicle or home heating infrastructure


[Add New]

No

  • Only special "flex-cars" can use corn ethanol. Those looking to replace gasoline with ethanol in their car must have a “flex-fuel” model that can run on either fuel. Given that ethanol is one of the main biofuels being proposed and promoted by many governments, most cars using the fuel would have to be pre-designed as "flex-fuel" cars in order to use the corn ethanol biofuel. This means that massive amounts of money would have to be invested in constructing these "flex-cars". These vehicles would not be readily available nor would gas stations that are capable of accommodating them.



[Edit]
[Delete Subquestion section]
[Add new subquestion section]
[Move subquestion section down]
[Move subquestion section up]

Algae biofuels: What are the pros and cons of algae biofuels?

[Add New]

Yes

  • Fast-growing algae can make much more biofuel comparatively. "The pros and cons of biofuels". CNN.com - "The fastest-growing plants, algae theoretically can produce 30 times more energy per acre than other biofuel options."
  • Algae biofuel creates useful byproducts. "The pros and cons of biofuels". CNN.com - "A particularly rich mix of byproducts can be made in algal-biofuels operations (everything from nutraceuticals to feedstocks for making plastics), potentially abetting their cost-effectiveness. This is the biofuels' dark horse."


[Add New]

No

  • The biomass for creating alae biofuel has to be created from scratch. "The pros and cons of biofuels". CNN.com - "Unlike cellulosic ethanol, the biomass for making a lot of fuel from algae doesn't yet exist; it has to be grown from scratch. Harvesting is still expensive. Cost-effectively producing algal biofuels on a large scale may be many years away."


[Edit]
[Delete Subquestion section]
[Add new subquestion section]
[Move subquestion section up]

Pro/con sources

[Add New]

Yes


[Add New]

No

See also

External links and resources

Problem with the site? 

Tweet a bug on bugtwits
.