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Leaked EU documents rank biofuel emissions higher than crude oil

Leaked EU documents rank biofuel emissions higher than crude oil

Posting in Energy

Leaked documents from the EU rank the carbon emissions of some biofuels -- including top crops palm, soybean, and rapeseed oil -- on par with oil from tar sands.

European Union politics website EurActive has gotten its hands on official EU data reporting that many biofuel crops release more carbon dioxide than crude oil, and approximate the emissions of the much-maligned oil mined from tar sands.

The numbers were intended for release in the spring when the EU presents new proposals on biofuels, and an official spokesperson refused to comment to EurActive.

The European Commission has long defended biofuels, despite dissent from Greenpeace and other environmental organizations. Its current biofuel roadmap demands that at least 5.75% of all energy sold on the market of any member country be biofuel, boosted to 10% by 2020.

However, also in the biofuel directive is that "biofuel production should be sustainable," and the new numbers suggest that it is not. The leaked data present higher carbon costs for biofuels because, for the first time, the analysts incorporated the effects of indirect land use change (ILUC). ILUC is the rise in emissions when forests and wetlands are destroyed to clear land to grow biofuel crops.

And with ILUC added to the mix, it looks like some top biofuel crops are worse for the environment, in terms of carbon emissions, than crude oil. The EU's default value for measuring carbon efficiency for oil from tar sands is 107g CO2 equivalent per megajoule of fuel (CO2/mj). Meanwhile, crude oil's efficiency value is 87.5g CO2/mj.

Here are the data (g CO2/mj) from the EU documents, incorporating ILUC, for various biofuel crops, thanks to EurActive:

  • Palm Oil - 105g
  • Soybean – 103g
  • Rapeseed – 95g
  • Sunflower – 86g
  • Palm Oil with methane capture – 83g
  • Wheat (process fuel not specified) – 64g
  • Wheat (as process fuel natural gas used in CHP) – 47g
  • Corn (Maize) – 43g
  • Sugar Cane – 36g
  • Sugar Beet – 34g
  • Wheat (straw as process fuel in CHP plants) – 35g
  • 2G Ethanol (land-using) – 32g
  • 2G Biodiesel (land-using) – 21g
  • 2G Ethanol (non-land using) – 9g
  • 2G Biodiesel (non-land using) – 9g

If European politicians recognize these figures and decide to take action on them, it's not clear what they should do. The top biodiesel crops -- palm, soybean, and rapeseed oil -- are all the least energy efficient. However, they are also the cheapest to produce, which is why they reign at the moment.

Photo: Achmad Rabin Taim/Flickr

[via Nature News]

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Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure