IPCC report: biofuels alone are unsustainable, but can still help combat climate change

von Dr. Peter Nagel

• By Douglas Crawford-Brown, University of Cambridge •

Biofuels have come under scrutiny in the latest IPCC report, which outlines some of the emergent risks associated with their production.

In principle, biofuels seem to be an ideal solution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and the risks of climate change. Most of the carbon released when the fuel is burned is absorbed by plants as they re-grow. If all went according to plan, the carbon cycle would be “closed” and there would be no (or very little) net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from biofuels.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report still finds potential for biofuels to provide a low(ish) carbon solution to energy needs and, as a result, be part of the arsenal of strategies to reduce the risks of climate change. But the authors also draw on the past decade of research that shows the challenges ahead if biofuels are to meet this promise without worsening other global problems.

But it has been clear from the earliest IPCC reports that biofuels were never going to be a game changer. At best they were going to provide 10% of the world’s energy needs – in part because it would be impossible to produce sufficient crops for biofuel, given the need to use land for other purposes.

Competing interests

As is common in policy debates, a solution is put forward to solve one particular problem (climate change) and over time people with interests in solving other problems (food or water security) begin to notice potential downsides for the focus of their concerns.

Biofuels have followed this traditional path and, since the last Assessment Report, it has been recognised that they cannot be understood as a solution outside of a more complex energy-food-water-climate nexus ...

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