The beginning of this century had emissions generated by fossil fuels in the crosshairs of many policymakers and governments and biofuels emerged as a promising solution to reduce the greenhouse gases emissions. Once touted as the panacea to climate change problems, the awareness of the shortcomings of biofuels has been increasing in recent years. These controversial biofuels — which are mostly plant-based and are produced from food crops — were expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus lesser pollution than the conventional fossil fuels, however, in practice, it has caused just the opposite of the intended result. Not only it has defied its purpose by adding more emissions into the atmosphere, but economically also, it does not seem an efficient replacement of fossil fuels.
To reduce our dependence on gasoline and diesel, mainly for transport sector which has been an ever-increasing contributor to emissions owing to the rapid growth of personal cars in developing nations, the addition of biofuels such as ethanol, biodiesel seemed a prudent option. However, we have been seeing a drastic reduction in the investment in biofuels over the decade. The reasons are environmental and economical.
As the demand for traditional food crops began to grow for the production of energy, the prices of food too kept spiking. While this may sound good news for farmers who got more moolah for their crops, it is the common man who started suffering the most. Many in the poorer nations, who could not afford the higher prices, had to go hungry and they have been getting affected today as well. The farmers have been converting land for crop production. Vast swathes of forest area are being cleared to grow these food crops. The increasing deforestation has resulted in the release of carbon dioxide from the trees and soil into the atmosphere which has led to a sharp increase in greenhouse gases emissions and warming of our planet; further, deforestation is also triggering desertification in drylands. In countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, the tropical rainforests have been declining, and one of the major factors for this decline is the use of the land for growing food crops. This has resulted not only in the increased emission of greenhouse gases but it has also been displacing the indigenous communities and killing wildlife. It’s surprising to note that the government of these nations see the boom in biofuels as their success story which reflects their nonchalant attitude toward impending climate crisis.
The European Union lawmakers — having realised the consequences of biofuels — have been limiting the amount of crop-based biofuels; with a decline in demand, the palm oil is expected to gradually phase out after 2023 and Europe may even see the eradication of palm oil by 2030. However, in the United States, the trend has been in the reverse direction. Cornfields are in plenitude in the US, which makes it the biggest producer of ethanol in the world. The industry enjoys huge subsidies too. The states of the US which grow corn have a major role to play in the American politics and presidential primary elections, thus, it is almost impossible to reduce these subsidies. Environmentalists and climate activists have been pushing to end the subsidies which biofuels enjoy. It’s worth mentioning here that not all biofuels have the same disadvantages. The advanced biofuels — which, for example, are derived from native grasses and genetically modified seawater algae — do have lesser negative environmental impacts and in the presence of adequate incentives from governments, they can help reduce greenhouse gases emissions dramatically.