Biofuels' Potential Danger to Biodiversity

It isn't all about carbon. Too much of today's environmental discussion focuses on carbon emissions and climate change. While carbon is obviously one of the most important issues facing the global environment, the real issues are sometimes much broader, and often much less simple.

Take, for example, biofuels. Many businesses and environmentalists have embraced biofuels as a way of declaring their "green-ness" and reducing their carbon footprints. But biofuels can present their own problems.

As discussed recently in The Guardian, many experts warn that an over-reliance on certain biofuels can have a dramatic effect on biodiversity. Biofuels may produce fewer greenhouse gases, but some of them have great potential for hurting wildlife through habitat destruction, and growing their source materials can have its own problems.

Here's the situation:

  1. Planting biofuel crops can mean razing existing forests (and as we've written about before, that can destroy habitats for species like orangutans, driving them into extinction)
  2. Razing forests releases greenhouse gases, and reduces the amount of forest available to absorb carbon from the atmosphere
  3. Some crops, like corn, require heavy fertilization, which has its own environmental impact

I'm not saying that biofuels are bad -- just that there should be some thought into which ones we use and how they are produced.

The state of Minnesota feels the same way. They're conducing research into how to best turn biofuel into big business for the state without hurting the state's environment or wildlife. They're concentrating on switchgrass and prairie grass, for a number of reasons:

Jim Kleinschmit with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis says a field of prairie grass creates a home for wildlife, a filter for runoff, and doesn't require the fertilization needed to grow corn.

Back to The Guardian's article, which points to a new study that judges a biofuel's total environmental impact. Some biofuels rank pretty poorly overall:

...almost half of the biofuels, a total of 12, had greater total environmental impacts than fossil fuels. These included economically-significant fuels such as US corn ethanol, Brazilian sugar cane ethanol and soy diesel, and Malaysian palm-oil diesel. Biofuels that fared best were those produced from waste products such as recycled cooking oil, as well as ethanol from grass or wood.

We're likely to see a huge shift in what fuels we use over the next ten years. Let's just hope we make the right decisions along the way.


Great post. Too often the secondary effects of biofuel production and incentives gets overlooked by environmentalists. Biofuel can be part of the solution to global warming, but the consequences of dramatic increases in any sort of agricultural activity needs to assessed extremely carefully.