Biofuels: the harsh reality of “clean energy”
Updated: May 3
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Over the past 200 years, industrial nations seeking modern, comfortable life have radically changed their techniques of communication, manufacturing, technology, fashion, agriculture, social norms, and so much more. Regardless of the exponential changes brought about by modernization, extracting fossil fuels for energy is one of the few practices which we have not changed since oil extraction began in the 19th century. As we all know, the search to fuel our modern lives with a sustainable energy source is a pressing matter and is one of the keys to solve the climate crisis.
One proposed replacement to fossil fuels has been to use biofuels—a source of energy derived from plant materials. Most biofuels today are derived from ethanol, a compound typically made from processing corn or sugar cane. According to Christina Nunez in the article “Biofuels, Explained”, using Biofuels has been shown to emit far less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels when burned. In fact, some argue that we could achieve a state of “carbon neutrality” with Biofuels, as the emissions would be balanced with the growth of new crops. Biofuels are a much more realistic transition than creating large infrastructure changes to adopt electric cars. But the issue we face with this energy alternative is a matter of how we will produce biofuels without causing more harm than good.
The expansion of the biofuel industry would add a significant weight to the modern industrial agricultural business, one of the most detrimental industries disrupting our planet's wellbeing. Our current agricultural system focuses on short term profit and promotes unsustainable practices such as heavy pesticide use, destruction of biodiverse land, and monocultures. Chelsea Anne Young from Stanford News states the majority of today's biofuel croplands are created at the detriment of tropical rainforests, the world's most efficient storehouses for carbon. The current method we have to create biofuels would actually equivocate or surpass the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. In fact, the carbon we would lose from destroying rainforests would take centuries to get back from saving CO2 with biofuels.
Palm oil monoculture bordering biodiverse tropical rainforest in Borneo, Indonesia
Sustainable alternatives to creating biofuels such as polycultures, reusing food waste, and restoring soil quality of degraded soil could be done, but it is much cheaper to exploit forested land. If we really want to use biofuels as a sustainable energy source, we must start with working towards a sustainable and restorative agriculture system. The issue is not the biofuel itself, but rather the means that humans go to produce these biofuels. With the right resources and effort, we could use our food waste to restore our soils and fuel our cars, without tearing down the sacred forest land which serves as the lungs to our planet.