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Biofuels may not be the panacea for the world's fossil-fuel woes, according to a study commissioned by the Swiss authorities.

This content was published on July 6, 2007 - 09:48

Such fuels, touted as an ecologically friendly source of energy, may be more harmful for the environment than their fossil counterparts.

The study into the environmental impacts of biofuels was commissioned by the Federal Environment Office, the Federal Energy Office and the Federal Agriculture Office.

The research team tested the following alternative fuels: bioethanol, biomethanol, biodiesel and biomethane. It then considered the entire production cycle.

According to the authors, while it was true that biofuels might emit less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels when consumed, producing them was generally more stressful on the environment.

The report confirmed that biofuels emit up to a third less carbon dioxide than petrol and diesel. However, this in itself was not enough to give them the eco-friendly stamp of approval.

"The energetic efficiency and the resulting reduced emissions of greenhouse gases cannot be the sole criteria for assessing the environmental friendliness of biofuels," said Rainer Zah, one of the authors.

"The prefix 'bio' doesn't necessarily mean environment friendly," Zah added.

Environmental impact

Growing and processing crops for energy purposes or feedstocks can have the heaviest environmental impact, as soil quality can be affected adversely, such as through fertiliser overuse.

In tropical countries slash and burning - used to clear land for crop production – resulted in copious amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the air.

The production of bioethanol from rye was the least environmentally friendly owing to low yields.

The environmental impacts of fuel processing and transportation were much lower, the report noted.

But unlike fossil fuels, the environmental impact of biofuels can be greatly reduced by specific measures and new production methods should lead to much better ecological results, it added.

Sustainable energy

Among the different biofuels, biogenic wastes, ranging from grass to wood, presented the most environmentally friendly option for replacing fossil fuels, the researchers declared.

They concluded by saying that, given its limited use, bioenergy would not solve Switzerland's energy problems in the near future. But if biofuels are transformed in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner, and combined with reduced consumption and energy-saving initiatives, "they could play a role in our future energy supply that should not be neglected".

The study comes hot on the heels of a report published by the United Nations earlier this month, which underlined similar concerns.

"Sustainable Energy: A Framework for Decision Makers" stressed that "the environmental and social damage could... outweigh the benefits" of biofuels.

It added that crops needing "high fossil energy inputs [such as conventional fertilise] and valuable [farm] land which have relatively low energy yields per hectare should be avoided".

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Biofuels contributed 0.3% of total energy consumption in European Union countries in 2003, which rose to 2% last year.
The EU wants to raise that level to 5.75% by the end of 2010. France has the more ambitious goal of consuming 7% biofuels in 2010 and 10% in 2015. Bioethanol fuel in Spain already accounts for 3% of the total consumption.
The US has announced it wants bioethanol to make up 10% of all car fuel consumption by 2010.

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Biofuels

Biofuels are any kind of fuel made from living things, or from the waste they produce.

Biofuels should produce less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional transport fuels.

Burning the fuels releases carbon dioxide but growing the plants absorbs a comparable amount of the gas from the atmosphere.

However, energy is used in farming and processing the crops, and this can make biofuels as polluting as petroleum-based fuels, depending on what is grown and how it is treated.

Production of ethanol doubled globally between 2000 and 2005, with biodiesel output quadrupling. Brazil leads the world in production and use, making about 16 billion litres per year of ethanol from its sugarcane industry.

The United States holds the same position for corn and together they make up 70% of the global market. 60% of new cars can run on a fuel mix which includes 85% ethanol.

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