Biofuels are widely considered one of the most promising sources
of renewable energy by policy makers and environmentalists alike.
However, unless principles and standards for production are developed
and implemented, certain biofuels will cause severe environmental
impacts and reduce biodiversity – the very opposite of
what is desired.
Corn-based ethanol is currently the most widely used biofuel
in the United States, but it is also the most environmentally
damaging among crop-based energy sources. A new article
published in Conservation Biology, a publication of the
Society for Conservation
Biology, qualitatively contrasts
major potential sources of biofuels, including corn, grasses,
fast-growing trees and oil crops. The study highlights
their relative impacts on the environment in terms of water
and fertilizer use and other criteria to calculate the
environmental footprint of each crop.
“The central goals of any biofuel policy must minimize
risks to biodiversity and to our climate,” says lead
author Martha Groom of the University of Washington. She
recommends the further use of algae and fast-growing trees
as biofuel sources because they yield more fuel per acre
than any feedstocks currently being pursued.
As well as comparing potential biofuel feedstocks, the
study also recommends a number of major principles for
governing the development of environmentally friendly biofuels.
Feedstocks should be grown according to sustainable and
environmentally safe agricultural practices with minimal
ecological footprints (the area of land required to grow
and support sufficient amounts of the crop). In particular,
emphasis should be placed on biofuels that can sequester
carbon or have a negative or zero carbon balance.
“While some biofuels may be an improvement over
traditional fuels, we believe we should focus much more
on the biofuels of the future that can be developed in
small spaces, rather than extensively on crop lands,” explains
Groom. “We also must shun biofuels that are grown
by clearing biologically-rich habitats, such as tropical
rainforests, as has occurred with oil palm and some other
biofuels.” The study was co-authored by Elizabeth
Gray, the director of science for The Nature Conservancy’s
Washington state program, and Patricia Townsend, a Ph.D.
candidate in the Department of Biology at UW.
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