Why plant-based biofuels are not the silver bullet for Europe’s carbon problem

Humanity is having a hard time breaking free from its addiction to fossil fuels. Over the past two decades, efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions have often looked more like baby steps and meager compromises than the radical solutions many scientists have been calling for. One of those compromises in Europe was to continue driving our cars, trucks and motorcycles as we always have. But instead of running on fossil fuels alone, we introduced a climate-friendly substitute: plant-based biofuels. Blended with diesel and gasoline, fuels made from plants such as canola, cereals, wheat, corn and oil palm have helped us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce CO2 emissions. Or so we thought…

Transport accounts for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, with road transport specifically responsible for 70 percent of all emissions from the sector. Unlike other sectors in Europe, emissions from transport have increased over the last 30 years. In part, the researchers say, this may be because biofuels aren’t exactly the climate allies we’ve been led to believe they are.

What’s wrong with biofuels?

Biofuels are “false solutions” to the pressing problem of reducing carbon emissions, concludes a new study commissioned by Environmental Action Germany (DUH). Analyzing the production and consumption of biofuels in Germany, researchers found that vast areas of land around the world are being “wasted” to grow these fuels at a huge cost to the environment. To satisfy Germany’s huge appetite for these natural biofuels, more than 1.2 million hectares of land – almost five times the size of Luxembourg – is used to grow these crops. Although the study was limited to Germany, the researchers say their findings apply across Europe.

Converting land used to grow biofuel crops into nature restoration projects would help us reduce emissions.

Why is using so much land bad for the environment?

Think what we could do with the land if we didn’t use it to grow biofuel crops, say German researchers. If these same 1.2 million hectares of land were dedicated to re-vegetation, this land could retain an average of 16.4 million tons of CO2 per year.
The number of emissions saved by blending biofuels with fossil fuels, on the other hand, is just 9.2 million tonnes of CO2 in 2020, according to official figures. But there is more. According to the researchers behind the study, the intensive agriculture behind biofuel production is harming ecosystems and biodiversity, causing a dramatic loss of habitats and species. In Germany, almost 70 percent of habitats are labeled as having inadequate or poor conservation status, according to the latest State of Nature Report of the German Environment Ministry.

Should we stop using biofuels?

The short answer is yes.

The EU has recently recognized the damage caused by monocultures for biofuels and introduced regulations to limit the further expansion of agricultural land for this purpose, but German researchers believe this is not enough. What is urgently needed, they say, is a phase-out of biofuels. Land now used for growing crops should instead be dedicated to restoring nature, which will see these same areas become natural carbon sinks over time. Fertile agricultural lands, on the other hand, should be used for food production. What should and can be done immediately, according to the researchers, is also to update the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which currently promotes the use of biofuels as a means of achieving renewable energy targets in the European transport sector. Above all, researchers, like many environmental activists, want real solutions: not compromises, not half-truths. According to them, no new cars with internal combustion engines should be registered in the EU from 2030 at the latest. Internal combustion engines will never be climate-friendly, no matter what you put inside them.
Walking, cycling and public transport is the way forward

This would mean revolutionizing the way we are used to moving around our cities and countries. Private vehicles should be phased out in favor of walking, cycling and the use of public transport, while the vehicles still on our roads should be powered solely by renewable energy, e.g. solar and electric. Producing solar electricity for electric vehicles requires 97 percent less land for biofuel for the same mileage.

The solution seems clear: goodbye agricultural biofuels, hello solar energy. But old habits are hard to break.


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