Biofuels in 400 words or less

One of the questions I really struggled with in the IEMA exam last week was this one:

“Biofuels are the sustainable future for transport fuel.”

Define what a biofuel is; discuss the advantages/disadvantages of biofuels; and provide an opinion, supported with reasons, on whether you agree or not with the above statement.

The production and use of biofuels are an extremely complex sustainability issue. This question was accompanied with the instruction to candidates:

Each answer per whole question (not for each part of each question) must be between 250 and 400 words (including words within diagrams) – candidates who exceed the 400 word limit will fail that question

Yikes! In 400 words or less, solve the world’s energy security/food/climate change/habitat destruction/rural displacement/biodiversity problems!

Here is my response. It took me a whole day to write this so that I could be within the word limit. It’s times like these that I’m quite glad I’m not an expert in biofuels! People who know more (Yap, I mean you) might find this response necessarily simplistic

Biofuels are made from biomass, most commonly plant material (DFT, 2005). There is worldwide focus on the potential for liquid biofuels to substitute petrol and diesel in meeting future transport needs (OECD/ITF, 2007).



Greenhouse gas (GHG) abatement – Biofuels produce less GHGs compared to fossil fuels; emissions are offset by the carbon that plants absorb while growing.

Emissions arise across all lifecycle stages – Fossil fuels are used to operate biofuels infrastructure, in cultivation, conversion, distribution and use. Compared to fossil fuels, grain-based biofuels reduce GHG emissions by as little as 10-30% (OECD/ITF 2007, Royal Society 2008)

Energy security – By displacing fossil fuels with biofuels (which are renewable), countries can reduce reliance on increasingly costly imported oil.

Limited land – The UK will be unlikely to achieve significant levels of fuel security by growing biofuels on its own land (Royal Society 2008).

Rural development – Biofuels industry can generate income for rural communities in both developed and developing countries.

Driving deforestation – Biofuels demand can drive deforestation, as farmers seek to generate income from as much arable land as they can control.

Other impacts of intensified agriculture – Biofuels cultivation is likely to increase water use, soil erosion, fertiliser use, convert ecosystems to monocultures, and impact visual amenity of uncultivated land.

Waste as feedstock – Second generation biofuels can use waste feedstocks (e.g. vegetable waste and cooking oils). This can lead to GHG savings of around 70% (OECD/ITF 2007, NNFCC 2007).

Food shortages – First generation biofuels use conventional food crops (e.g. wheat, maize, sugar and palm oil) (Royal Society 2008). Demand for biofuels could divert both crops and land from food production.

Are biofuels the sustainable future for transport fuel? In the case of first generation biofuels, the answer is ‘no’. Their relatively low GHG abatement does not justify the high risk of driving food shortages. However, looking to the future, a sustainable transport system should incorporate biofuels that:

  • Are based on dedicated high yield energy crops, co-products from food production, and organic wastes (Royal Society 2008);
  • Wherever possible, make use of marginal land of low agricultural or biodiversity value;
  • Are cultivated on sustainably managed cropland (integrated management of biodiversity, water, soil erosion, chemicals use, etc.);
  • Run efficiently in vehicles designed to use biofuels; and
  • Are priced to reflect environmental and social costs.

Advanced biofuels can then form part of a sustainable transport system, one that promotes biofuels alongside energy efficiency and reducing the demand and need for motorised transport.

Word count

Cited references
DFT – Department for Transport (2005), Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) feasibility report, available at link, accessed on 22 June 2008

NNFCC – National Non-Food Crops Centre (2007), ‘Liquid fuels’, website, available at link , accessed on 22 June 2008

OECD/ITF – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and International Transport Forum (2007), ‘Biofuels: Linking Support to Performance’, Summary and conclusions from the Transport Research Centre, round table 7-8 June 2007, Paris, available at link, accessed on 22 June 2008

Royal Society (2008), Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges, policy document 01/08, The Royal Society, London, available at link, accessed on 22 June 2008


  1. Martin says:

    Hey, for 400 words that’s pretty darn good! I think my environmental economics professor would like you 🙂

  2. joanium says:

    Environmental economics, eh. Have you been keeping up with Garnaut review on climate change? There’s a great podcast of his lecture at ANU in late June. They’re doing some very interesting work to take into account non-monetary benefits of climate change mitigation. You can download it from the ABC website for the next week or so. Otherwise, the transcript might be still up there.

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