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Page added on January 7, 2013

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Biofuels cause pollution, not as green as thought

Alternative Energy

Green schemes to fight climate change by producing more bio-fuels could actually worsen a little-known type of air pollution and cause almost 1,400 premature deaths a year in Europe by 2020, a study showed on Sunday.

The report said trees grown to produce wood fuel – seen as a cleaner alternative to oil and coal – released a chemical into the air that, when mixed with other pollutants, could also reduce farmers’ crop yields.

“Growing biofuels is thought to be a good thing because it reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” said Nick Hewitt, who worked on the study with colleagues from England’s Lancaster University.

“What we’re saying is ‘yes, that’s great, but biofuels could also have a detrimental effect on air quality’,” he added.

The report, in the journal Nature Climate Change, looked into the impact of a European Union scheme to slow climate change by producing more biofuels.

Hewitt told Reuters there would be a similar impact wherever biofuels were produced in large quantities in areas suffering air pollution, including the United States and China.

Poplar, willow or eucalyptus trees, all used as fast-growing sources of renewable wood fuel, emit high levels of the chemical isoprene as they grow, the study said. Isoprene forms toxic ozone when mixed with other air pollutants in sunlight.

“Large-scale production of biofuels in Europe would have small but significant effects on human mortality and crop yields,” said Hewitt.

“As far as we know, no one has looked at the air quality of growing biofuel crops before,” he added.

The report estimated that ozone from wood-based energy to meet the European Union’s 2020 goal would cause nearly 1,400 premature deaths a year, costing society $7.1 billion.

The European plan would also would reduce the annual value of wheat and maize production by $1.5 billion since ozone impairs crop growth, the study added.


Siting new biofuel plantations far away from polluted population centres would help limit ozone formation, the study suggested. Genetic engineering might be used to reduce isoprene emissions, it said.

Ozone can cause lung problems and is blamed for killing about 22,000 people a year in Europe. Overall air pollution, mainly from fossil fuels, causes about 500,000 premature deaths in Europe a year, according to the European Environment Agency.

Sunday’s study did not compare the potential damage caused by biofuels to the impact on human health from producing coal, oil or natural gas as part of policies to slow global warming. “We’re not in a position to make that comparison,” Hewitt said.

He noted that the main reason to shift to biofuels was to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, mainly from fossil fuels, that U.N. studies project will become ever more damaging this century.

The United Nations’ World Health Organization estimates global warming has caused more than 140,000 deaths annually worldwide since the 1970s.

The biggest impact was recorded in developing nations where the floods, droughts and other disasters blamed on climate change left millions suffering from diarrhoea, malnutrition, malaria and dengue fever.

Burning biofuels is viewed as neutral for climate change because plants soak up carbon when they grow and release it when they burn or rot. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, add carbon to the atmosphere from underground stores millions of years old.

Biofuels are often blamed for causing food price spikes by competing for cropland. Responding to such criticisms, the European Commission said last year it aimed to limit crop-based biofuels – such as from maize or sugar – to five percent of transport fuels.


7 Comments on "Biofuels cause pollution, not as green as thought"

  1. Rick on Mon, 7th Jan 2013 9:08 pm 

    Biofuels is more BS, to keep the cars running. And of course they also pollute. As long as there are 7 billion on this planet, there are no solutions.

  2. BillT on Tue, 8th Jan 2013 2:30 am 

    There are NO “green” energy sources. Even burning wood produces carbon pollution and animals expel carbon gases. The problem is quantity.

    We are headed for extinction in this century. Every new report moves the date closer. The world could be very harsh and mostly unlivable in as few as 25 years. No-one wants to believe this.

    Techies think they can pull a hat out of the rabbit, but they are in for a shock. Tech is not magic. It only seems to be. It has made this disaster possible in the first place, and it will only make it worse as the days go on. Wait and see.

  3. James on Tue, 8th Jan 2013 2:55 am 

    Duh! Anything you burn will produce CO2 and various gasses and particulates. However, planet earth seems to be able to handle “natural” pollution better than industrial pollution. She has been handling natural pollution for thousands of years. So, if we go back to a more agrarian way of life and burn wood and dung for heat. Earth will be able to handle it.

  4. BillT on Tue, 8th Jan 2013 7:20 am 

    James, you are fight on! Mother Nature’s system can handle one years normal pollution in one year’s time. What we have done is add a million years worth every year for decades and over-powered the system.

    But, she does have a remedy and it is beginning. Heat. Best way to kill a virus is with heat. About 6 degrees Centigrade will do the trick. Say 2035?

  5. DC on Tue, 8th Jan 2013 8:05 am 

    Of course Bio-fools pollute ffs! The ‘standard’ practice is to mix it 90/10 with regular fossil-fuels, themselves slowly being replaced with things like tar-sands gas. How could bio-fools *not* pollute when all there being used for is to water down a gallon of regular gas 10-15%?

    Only Yahoo news would be surprised to learn bio-fools are utter crap…

  6. ken nohe on Tue, 8th Jan 2013 11:47 am 

    The problem of bio-fuel is not pollution, it is that it’s a crime to use potential food for energy whereas the energy gain is infinitesimal if it exists at all. The whole point of bio-fuel is political and that is also why it won’t go anytime soon.

    As for Mother Nature, sorry to disagree but it doesn’t handle natural pollution any better than artificial ones. It just has time on its side and eventually with time you solve every problem. Just as an example, Oxygen release by early organisms was a pollutant which eventually killed off almost all life on earth until a solution was found but it took many millions of years. Eventually, plastic eating organisms will appear as will other strange beasts. When you understand that a swallow is what is left of a Tyrannosaurus Rex after 80 millions years, you can only admire the infinite power unleashed by simple principles. It is truly awesome. We still have a lot to learn.

  7. BillT on Tue, 8th Jan 2013 1:10 pm 

    Ken, of course Nature handles natural pollution. The system is a loop that puts waste into the system at one point and, somewhere down the line, the same waste is absorbed back into the system. Problem is, we burned millions of years of carbon sequestration in a few decades. It will take thousands of years to reabsorb what we released in my lifetime alone. WE will NOT be here as a species to see it. So, yes, you are correct. In time it will be gone and we will be the bones buried in the layers above the dinosaurs. Another vanished species. Difference is, we will have committed species suicide.

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