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Yellow light for green fuel? Biofuels rarely better than petrol

Wood is one of the materials that can be used to make biofuel


Biofuels have an undeserved reputation for environmental friendliness, according to a study commissioned by the Federal Energy Office and released Monday. The study re-evaluated the ecological effects of biofuels and their production processes.

Empa, an interdisciplinary research and services institution for material sciences and technology development within the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, conducted the study in collaboration with the Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon research institute and the Paul Scherrer Institute.

The new study updated the ecobalance of numerous biofuels, including their production chains, using a more extensive data set and up-to-date methods, but came to the same conclusion as a similar study conducted by Empa in 2007: that most biofuels are not really “green” and few are more environmentally friendly than petrol.

Most biofuels “just deflect the environmental impact: fewer greenhouse gases, thus more growth-related pollution for land used for agriculture”, said study leader Rainer Zah.

Biogas produced from garbage was seen as a positive example, placing less than half the burden that petrol places on the environment. Biofuels with an ethanol base tend to perform more ecologically than those with an oil base, the study found. The result depends to a great extent on the process and technology used.

Since July 2008, biofuels such as biogas, bioethanol und biodiesel have been exempt from the petroleum tax in Switzerland. They are required to meet minimum ecological standards and demonstrate a positive ecological balance overall.

Food vs. fuel

In August, following severe drought in the United States that destroyed much of the maize crop, the United Nations’ food agency urged the United States to change its biofuel policies to avert the danger of a world food crisis, arguing that growing crops for food is more important than using them for fuel.

A mix of high oil prices, growing use of biofuels, speculation on commodity markets and export restrictions pushed up prices of food in 2007 and 2008, sparking violent protests in countries including Egypt, Cameroon and Haiti.

In 2008, while serving as environment minister, Moritz Leuenberger attended an international conference held in São Paulo, Brazil, to discuss biofuels (see related story).

Biofuels are mainly produced from maize, rapeseed, soy, beetroot and sugar cane. It takes 200 kilograms of maize and 4,000 litres of water to produce one litre of ethanol.

end of infobox and agencies


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