Biofuels may damage health, researchers find

Feb 05, 2013 by Harriet Jarlett
Biofuels may damage health

Concern is growing about finding alternatives to fossil fuels, but the negative impact of one of these—biofuels—may be greater than we first thought, say scientists.

Researchers show, using a , that the released through growing biomass plants could be dangerous to crops and humans.

Biofuels are seen as a suitable alternative to oil and coal in the bid to reduce carbon dioxide and mitigate global warming. Because of this, four years ago the EU set aggressive targets to replace ten per cent of transport fuel with biofuels by 2020. Yet these new findings suggest the health and agricultural costs could outweigh any benefits to the climate.

Professor Nick Hewitt, from the Lancaster Environment Centre who led the research, says, 'At present there's 215 million hectares of land being cultivated across Europe and using previous estimates we show that you would actually need to plant one third of that with biofuels to meet the .' Land used to grow commercial crops over biomass would still be at risk from a product of production – ozone.

Using the model, the scientists populated their digital Europe with fast- used in biofuel production, such as poplar and willow. But when these trees are grown, chemicals such as isoprene are released. When these compounds combine in the atmosphere they form ozone – a key component of smog and a cause of crop losses. By growing enough crops to reach the targets the scientists found up to 39 per cent more isoprenes were released, and in turn ozone levels rose.

'We didn't have preconceived notions about what we might find, although we anticipated that increasing the amount of poplar would increase the amount of isoprene and ozone,' Hewitt says. 'But we had no idea of the impact we saw on and .'

Ozone poisoning can amount to nearly £3 billion in losses in wheat alone. Yet with plans to increase biofuel production, a further £1 billion of could be added to this.

Ozone can cause severe respiratory problems. The World Health Organisation (WHO) currently believes that 22,000 people in Europe die per year due to ozone, but by planting enough poplar and willow to reach the EU target there could be over 1300 more deaths each year.

In order to generate enough land on which to digitally plant enough biofuel to reach the EU target, the scientists had to include countries outside of the EU, specifically the Ukraine. 'It is unrealistic to expect to plant that much only in the EU countries, since it would be more than half the available agricultural land,' explained Hewitt.

Even with the inclusion of these countries, by converting a third of the land to biofuel production it would mean a third less land being used to grow food . This loss was deemed a necessary forfeit, particularly since food consumption in Europe is expected to remain fairly stable until 2020.

'Deciding whether biofuels are good or bad is difficult, because they're probably beneficial from a climate point of view as they reduce CO2 in the atmosphere,' concludes Hewitt. 'But they can be a bad thing from an air quality point of view as they raise . How you balance these though is a political decision.'

Explore further: US delays decision on Keystone pipeline project

More information: Ashworth, K., Wild, O., and Hewitt, C. 2013. Impacts of biofuel cultivation on mortality and crop yields. Nature Climate Change doi: 10.1038/nclimate1788.

Related Stories

France reconsiders plans to boost biofuel use

Sep 12, 2012

France said Wednesday it would reconsider its plans to further develop the use of biofuel, once seen as a potential source of cheap alternative energy but now blamed for soaring food prices.

EU to trim biofuel targets on greenhouse gas fears

Sep 11, 2012

The European Union plans to trim targets on biofuel use, once seen as a potential source of cheap alternative energy but now widely blamed for soaring food prices, according to a draft proposal.

EU cuts use of food-based biofuels

Oct 17, 2012

The European Commission said Wednesday that it was cutting targets for the use of biofuels so as to reduce the negative impact on food production and prices.

Recommended for you

US delays decision on Keystone pipeline project

Apr 18, 2014

The United States announced Friday a fresh delay on a final decision regarding a controversial Canada to US oil pipeline, saying more time was needed to carry out a review.

New research on Earth's carbon budget

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Results from a research project involving scientists from the Desert Research Institute have generated new findings surrounding some of the unknowns of changes in climate and the degree to which ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

China says massive area of its soil polluted

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...