Environmental Impacts of Biofuels

Cultivation of crops or foresty for food or non-food uses can have a range of environmental impacts both positive (e.g. soil stabilisation, phytoremediation) and negative (e.g. possible reduction in biodiversity, water and fertilizer issues).

Some intensive modern farming methods may have a range of negative effects on the environment, such as soil erosion, water shortage, pollution from pesticides and problems with over use of fertilizers (including eutrophication). Eutrophication, the decrease in the biodiversity of an ecosystem as the result of release of chemical nutrients (typically compounds containing nitrogen or phosphorous),  is only one threat to biodiversity, which may also be impacted by the replacement of a natural ecosystem by monocultures, whether annual fields of rapeseed, sugarbeet or cereals, or large areas of coppice, energy crops or short rotation forest.

A number of projects are re-assessing the availability and environmental impact of biofuel feedstocks, while the focus of biofuels R&D&D in Europe is on second generation technologies that use waste oils and fats, agricultural residues, forest biomass or energy crops, which can be grown on marginal land, with lower requirements for fertiliser and other inputs. Work also continues to increase the efficiency and sustainability of first-generation biofuel production (see the plant bioechnology, process innovation, biodiesel and bioethanol pages). For example, Triticale has been tested as an alternative to wheat as a bioethanol feedstock. Trials in the UK in 2011 showed it offered greater yields at the same or lower levels of nitrogen inputs.

In 2015 the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) published an extensive report on bioenergy and sustainability. This report 'Bioenergy & Sustainability: bridging the gaps' combines a comprehensive analysis of the current bioenergy landscape, technologies and practices with a critical review of their impacts. Experts from over 80 institutions contributed to the extensive evaluation of the current status of bioenergy resources, systems and markets and the potential for sustainable expansion and wider adoption of this renewable resource. As documented in the 21 chapters of the report, the use of land for bioenergy is inextricably linked to food security, environmental quality, and social development, with potentially positive or negative consequences depending on how these linkages are managed.

The ARUP and URS Consortium has launched a publication on Sustainability of Advanced Biofuels in 2014, which can be downloaded here.

In 2013 a report was produced by Winrock, IEEP and Ecofys on behalf of EC on Mandatory requirements in relation to air, soil, or water protection: analysis of need and feasibility. The report forms part of of the wider 'Study on the operation of the system for the biofuels and bioliquids sustainability scheme'.

In May 2011 the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP) Task Force on Sustainability agreed on a first set of 24 relevant, practical, science-based, voluntary sustainability indicators for bioenergy. Several countries were undertaking pilot projects to test the feasibility and practicality of the indicators as a tool for policymaking. The final report aims to bring together the lessons learned to date from the GBEP pilots, using the outcomes available so far and focused discussions at a GBEP meeting in May 2013. The report is intended as a guide to help the GBEP community to further develop the indicators and enhance the practicality of the tool. It presents detailed lessons learned and recommendations per indicator. Short, medium and longer term recommendations were provided to the GBEP community to take on board to enhance the practicality of the GBEP indicators as a tool for policy making.

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