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Royal Society: Biofuel Area Requires Detailed Assessments, More Research and Coherent Policy to Realize Potential Sustainability Benefits

Thermal, biological and chemical pathways for biofuel and chemical production. Click to enlarge.

A report from a working group of experts convened by the UK’s Royal Society has concluded that although biofuels have a potentially useful role in tackling the issues of climate change and energy supply for transportation, important opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels, and to ensure wider environmental and social benefits, may be missed with existing policy frameworks and targets.

The group was convened to consider the science and technology prospects of delivering efficient biofuels for transport in the broader context of the environmental protection and sustainability. The report, Sustainable Biofuels: prospects and challenges, comes at a time when the EU’s transport biofuels targets (5% of transport fuel supply from biofuels by 2010 and 10% by 2020) are coming under increasing criticism.

Although biofuels offer a number of perceived benefits—carbon-neutrality, support for emerging bio-economies, and petroleum replacement—the full picture is much more complex as different biofuels have widely differing environmental, social and economic impacts, according to the report.

The authors outlined four major caveats for biofuel use:

  • “Biofuel” is much too broad a term—it covers a wide variety of products with many different characteristics and a wide range of potential savings in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

    The wide diversity and complexity of options for producing biofuels in itself presents a challenge to fully understanding the relative benefits that different biofuels can offer. It is therefore not possible to make simple generalizations about biofuels being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Each biofuel option needs to be assessed individually, on its own merits.

  • Each assessment must address the environmental and economic aspects of the complete cycle—growth of the plant, transport to the refinery, the refining process itself (including potential by-products such as specialty chemicals), wastes produced, distribution of the resultant fuel to consumers, end use, and potential for pollution. Such assessments would help to determine the extent to which different biofuels are carbon neutral.

  • Widespread deployment of biofuels will have major implications for land use, with associated environmental, social and economic impacts that must in turn be assessed. Here, in particular, unintended consequences may reduce or override the expected benefits.

  • The assessments must address the global and regional impacts, not just local ones.

The authors conclude that for biofuels to deliver a realistic substitute for conventional fuels and meet sustainability criteria there must be substantial improvements in efficiency throughout the supply chain linking feedstocks to their final uses.

This will require a major research and development effort in both public and private sectors, according to the report. Key objectives should include:

  • Increased yield per hectare of feedstock while reducing negative environmental impacts;

  • Development of new feedstocks that can, for example, be grown in more hostile environments, be more readily processed and be capable of generating a variety of products;

  • Improved methods of processing, in particular for lignocellulose feedstocks;

  • New physicochemical systems for biofuel synthesis;

  • Development and demonstration of integrated biorefineries;

  • Integration of the supply chain to gain the maximum efficiencies;

  • Integration of biofuel development with engine development;

  • Internationally agreed methods of assessing sustainability.

However biofuels have a limited ability to replace fossil fuels and should not be regarded as a ‘silver bullet’ to deal with transport emissions. Progress towards a sustainable solution for transport and the demand for mobility requires an integrated approach, which combines biofuels with other developments, including vehicle and engine design, the development of hybrid and fuel cell vehicles and supporting infrastructure, public transport, better urban and rural planning to address the increasing demand for transport as well as more specific policies to reduce demand and encourage behavioural change.

A coherent policy approach to biofuels—currently lacking—is required, the authors argue, to avoid the unintended consequence of solving one problem at the expense of exacerbating another.




The illustration lacks the new fourth pathway introduced by Coskata “Any carbon based feedstock including any biomass, old tires, etc => syngas by heating => ethanol by fermentation of syngas. If Coskata can keep their promises then this discussion about the sustainability of biofuels is over in a few years from now. Let’s hope the Chinese pay attention and copy this technology as well. The Chinese seems to be a “little” faster when it comes to commercialization of good ideas. Just kidding :-).

Harvey D

Biofuels sustainability depends on feedstocks used.

Using edible food stocks such as corn does not make much sense because it is already having a drastic effect on the availability and price of most other food stocks.

Using our food production land to produce biofuel to keep our gas guzzlers going should not be promoted but restricted to surplus only.

However, biofuel could be produced for extended periods from non-food stocks such as multiple wastes and cellulose from non-food productive land.

USA is off to a wrong start with massive corn ethanol production. Look at what happened to the price of wheat, and other feed grains in the last 12 months. Any more growth in corn ethanol production will double + the price of most food within 12 to 24 months.

The longer term solution is to reduce fuel consumption for transport vehicles by up to 80% (and more), convert fuel based HVAC to gas or electricity and remove oil furnaces, stop producing biofuel fuel with edible feed stocks and convert existing plants to use wastes and cellulose.


The great thing is that the Royal Society report fully acknowledges that biofuels can have social and environmental benefits for the world's poor, the vast majority of who are farmers.

Check Biopact soon; they will read the report from the perspective of developing countries.

The EU policy also fails in that it specifies the solution (10% biofuel) rather than specify the problem and let the market find the solution. In particular it specifies that biomass energy displace oil energy in transport. However it might be better for biomass to displace natural gas in power generation and NG to displace oil in transport. Same result but the policy excludes it.


This idea about promoting human life at all cost is a very Christian and a very humane way of thinking. It is the number one reason that many people find it appalling to use food for fuel production. However, does it make sense? So far food for fuel does not importantly drive the current rise in food prices. The price of food have increased because of increasing cost of the energy intensive farming and more importantly because as the Chinese and Indians raise their annual incomes by about 10% per year they start to eat more meat and less grain and this is driving and the explosive demand for grain for meat production. As a rough estimate I would attribute 60% of the price increase in food prices to demand shifts cause by China and India, 30% to increasing fuel prices, 5% to demand from food for biofuels and 5% to various other issues.

The problem is that this important demand change from grain food to meat food is going to continue for years to come and I therefore expect food prices to go much higher in the coming years. They will even continue to rise if oil should go down. This price increase will bring an end to further production of biofuels from food. In fact in the US the least modern corn ethanol facilities are being closed as we speak because they are no longer profitable at $5 per bushel.

My point is that food for biofuels will end all by its selves but the price of food will continue to rise because an increasing number of wealthy people on the planet will compete for a fixed amount of farmland to produce their meat rich food. These price increases may actually continue to the point where some unfortunate and unemployed people without farmland in the poorest countries simply can’t afford to eat and then they will die of hunger. The cynical person would say problem solved you can only die once so it is not a durable problem. We have all the reason to feel compassion with the victims of this development. However, to be realistic compassion is likely to be all that these unfortunate people will get. Frankly I don’t believe that any wealthy country will impose laws that will limit the amount of meat each person will be allowed to eat in order to restrict demand and thereby the price growth for grain food. Furthermore, another dilemma is that more humans mean less chance of survival for other spices. What is most ethical? To have many more humans and extinct numerous of other species or to have less humans and save numerous of species from extinction? Personally I am very critical of the common conception that human life is much more valuable than other life on the planet. This is especially so given the fact that we are far from being an endangered species. I think this conception is so popular because its wider implications are ignored or simply not understood.


Good points Henrik. Don't forget that much of the idea behind dominion over the animals comes through religious scripture. Were it not for the fear of death, promulgated by organized religion, limiting human reproduction would be a less contentious issue.

On the food issue - it is rather well known that the consumption of meat is a major contributor to the anthropogenic GHG claim. Some 75% of US grown corn is used for cattle feed - not food. If, as the world globalizes, cultures agree to limit consumption of certain food groups (esp. meat) it would do much to address this problem.

July 2005 issue of Physics World states: "The animals we eat emit 21 percent of all the CO2 that can be attributed to human activity."


I find it odd that some would say that since we can not provide ALL of our transportation fuel needs through biofuel, then why bother. 10% is 10%, the math is pretty simple. Biofuel uses plants that convert solar power into energy. It is current account stuff and not the solar energy that was put in the ground over millions of years. Fossil fuels are our savings account and most people know it is best to save that for when you need it.


I have to disagree with an initial premise that Henrik put forward along with some reasonable projections. He states, "So far food for fuel does not importantly drive the current rise in food prices."

Yes, I know that a recent study showed a weak correlation. Nonetheless, the correlation is there, and other studies, e.g., from the Earth Policy Institute, might indicate further evidence of a link.

Certainly, the connection between oil prices and food prices exists. It also is worth watching for changes in another potentially scarce resource: water.

I. C. Formiles

Henrik has hit the nail on the head. Not until humans abandon the silly fairy tails and superstitions masquerading as religion to cheat people out of their money and liberty will we have the true vision to innovate our way out of the problems the old guard have left in place for us.

I C Formiles

correction: fairy tails = fairy tales

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