Biofuels: The Myth of Carbon Neutrality
We deal with myths on a daily basis, but this myth has got to be the worst: that biofuels are carbon neutral.
It’s detrimental to the world if educated environmentalists believe this myth and argue in the favor of biofuels in debates of how we should transition to being a carbon neutral society.
I won’t lie. I believed biofuels were carbon neutral. I read it in my Introduction to Environmental Studies textbook freshman year. On my final exam, I listed biofuels as carbon neutral next to solar, hydro, wind, and geothermal. I got the answer right.
Let’s back up: carbon neutrality means we do not emit carbon into the atmosphere. Based on our current lifestyles, carbon neutrality seems like an impossible task. We rely on burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) to live our daily lives, including: using plastics, driving our cars, heating our homes, watching TV, using electronics, and cooking dinner on the stove.
We emit carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, the remains of living animals and plants long ago. Since it takes the Earth such a long time to produce more fossil fuels, we’re going to run out.
The carbon clock doesn’t predict when we will run out; it gives us a guideline of when we should act as though we did. The carbon clock shows how much CO2 can be released into the atmosphere to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C and 2°C. Right now, it reads we have 25 years to become a carbon neutral society.
Keep in mind how hard, challenging, and slow this shift will be. That’s why environmentalists are urging that every country take immediate action to lower their carbon emissions. Costa Rica has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2021—a really quick shift. The Paris Agreement, which is an agreement between countries to set carbon budgets for themselves, focuses on achieving carbon neutrality goals in the long-term.
The Paris Agreement assigns budgets for every country based on the category they fall into. Put simply, less developed countries get higher carbon budgets to “catch up” with developed countries. Countries that are already developed have the societal and monetary ability to switch to carbon neutral energy sources, which is why they get a lower carbon budget. This is why the U.S. won’t sign it; the U.S. would be included in the countries that would get a lower amount of carbon to emit.
Personally, I cannot imagine our society switching to carbon neutral energy sources, but if we don’t, our planet is in big trouble. I could write an entire book on all the terrible things that will happen if we don’t keep the heating at a maximum of 1.5°C and 2°C. If you want more details, read the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC)’s report on the details of a 1.5°C temperature increase here.
The moral of the story? We need to lower our carbon emissions, and in the future, become completely carbon neutral.
But lowering our carbon emissions is challenging. This is where this debate about biofuels enters the picture. I told you all those facts about why we need to stop emitting carbon, but the discussion of biofuels wades into the how territory of the carbon neutral discussion.
I believed biofuels were carbon neutral until my senior year. In Climate Change Policy & Advocacy, we were given an assignment to read St. Lawrence University’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), a plan our school created to help our campus transition to eventually being carbon neutral. We were told to write a research paper in the form of an email giving advice to those who are in charge of implementing the plan. Our professor planned to actually send our papers, which made the assignment more important and interactive. We also had to present our findings to the entire class.
One goal of the CAP included in St. Lawrence’s Energy Master Plan was to transition to biomass boilers, or to use geothermal energy in combination with solar energy. This plan was defined as a mid-term goal (7-15 years). The biomass boilers would specifically use wood pellets as fuel. At first, I thought: Cool, biomass boilers. Carbon neutral. I don’t know what to argue here.
Then I started wondering. How do biomass boilers work? They can’t really be as clean as geothermal and solar energy, can they? I learned biofuels were carbon neutral, but that’s all I learned. I never learned the details.
On Google Scholar, I searched biofuels. The sources that showed up supported biofuels, as expected. Then I searched: “Are Biofuels Carbon Neutral?”
I dug deep. I started to come across sources that critically examined biofuels through a scientific lens. From the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, I found the source, “Indoor Air Pollution From Biomass Fuel Smoke is a Major Health Concern in the Developing World.” In Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society, I found: “Biomass Fuels and Respiratory Diseases.” In Progress in Energy and Combustion Science: “Pollutants From the Combustion of Solid Biomass Fuels.” In Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews: “Biomass Energy and the Environmental Impacts Associated with its Production and Utilization.”
I started to think I was on to something. Reading these sources, I found that biomass fuels are not carbon neutral. I’ll hit you with some science now.
Biomass fuel contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in several ways: in order to heat the biomass to turn it into fuel, fossil fuels are used; due to the need for biomass to be mass-produced, the transportation of the fuel contributes to emissions; and the production of biomass fuel from wood causes deforestation. Deforestation contributes to 12-18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is equal to or more than the transportation sector, which attributes to 14% of the world’s emissions. These percentages are based off the EPA’s data in 2017.
Not only does deforestation contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, but reforestation is an important aspect of climate change mitigation. Forests absorb, or remove from the atmosphere, 30% of all CO2emissions every year. Using biomass fuel from wood would contribute to climate change not only emitting fossil fuels, but also by reducing the amount of CO2 taken up by forests.
What’s even worse? Burning biomass fuel from wood releases many harmful pollutants into the air, such as carbon monoxide, free radicals, particulate matter, and carcinogens. Over 200 chemical and compound groups have been identified in wood smoke. Biomass fuel is considered a low efficiency fuel, meaning it does not heat well and produces a lot of pollutants. Let’s do some math here: add the pollutants released when burning biomass fuels to the pollutants that are caused by burning the greenhouse gases to create the fuel. At this point, it’s better to just use the fossil fuels alone.
The day we had to present our arguments in front of the class, I was nervous. All my classmates were going to the front of the room and agreeing with the plan to use biomass boilers. My face grew redder with each person, and my hands got sweatier. Finally, it was my turn to present. I had my paper in front of me, but I didn’t read a single word from it. Without even trying, I had memorized my entire argument. I was so invested in this topic that this presentation was probably the best I ever gave throughout my 4 years at St. Lawrence.
“This is going to be awkward,” I said, shifting my weight to my other foot, “because I’m going to disagree with a lot of you. Biomass boilers are not carbon neutral, and we should not plan to use them.”
At the end of my presentation, a classmate of mine who had given his presentation before me endorsing biomass boilers raised his hand. He started arguing with me. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I know I stood my ground, unlike other times I had academic arguments in classes. I knew I was right. I had done the research, whereas he had accepted what he learned in Introduction to Environmental Studies.
Eventually, my classmates and I looked to my professor for his opinion. He said, “I agree with Katie.” I smiled with relief. “I have a huge problem with biomass boilers. They’re not carbon neutral.” He went on to explain how using the farm land to create the wood chips for the biomass boilers would also have a negative impact on the environment.
Why am I telling this story? So you don’t go around calling yourself an environmentalist while believing biomass boilers are carbon neutral. Also, so that you question everything, including the “facts” you read in textbooks. And finally, so that you’re never afraid to go against the crowd to state your unpopular opinion. You might just be right.