Mitigating Climate Change by Using Biofuels

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Currently, more than 55 percent of the energy supplies in the Philippines are derived from geothermal power, hydropower, biomass, natural gas, local coal, local oil and coco diesel. Thirty-four percent are imported while the remaining 10 percent comes from imported coal. 

These figures were bared by Rafael L. Coscolluela, administrator of the Sugar Regulatory Administration, during a workshop for media practitioners held at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) in Los Baños, Laguna. 

With more Filipinos added daily to the current population of 87 million, the use of fossil fuels is most likely to increase. “Unless new oil fields are discovered and developed, the crude oil supply will be critical within the next 40 years apart from becoming prohibitively expensive,” warned Dr. Renato Labadan, one of the most prominent scientific minds in the country. 

But what environmentalists concern most is the fact that if more fossil fuels were burned then there would be more carbon dioxide that will be present in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas cited by experts as one of the culprits for the sudden change of climatic conditions around the world, including the Philippines. 

“We have to decrease the use of fossil fuels to help mitigate the consequences of global warming,” said Matanog M. Mapandi, the Department of Energy’s assistance secretary. 

Although the contribution of the Philippines to climate change is minimal, Filipinos have to act locally as it is part of the global community. 

“The consequence of global climate change are so pressing that it doesn’t matter who was responsible for the past; what matters is who is responsible for the future – and that means all of us,” declared actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is the governor of California. “The rich nations and the poor nations have different responsibilities. But one responsibility we all have, and that is action, action, action, action!” 

One of the several actions that the Philippines are committed to do is its contribution in the use of biofuels. Defined as solid, liquid or gaseous fuels, they are derived from relatively recently dead biological material and is distinguished from fossil fuels, which are derived from long dead biological material. These biofuels are “added or blended to petroleum fuels to enhance or alter chemical or physical properties and improve performance or usage of the fuels.” 

A report released by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute said that biofuels could significantly reduce global dependence on oil. “Although oil still accounts for more than 96 percent of transport fuel use, biofuel production has doubled since 2001 and is poised for even stronger growth as the industry responds to higher fuel prices and supportive government policies,” it said. 

Sugarcane is the most important crop for producing biofuels today; it supplies more than 40 percent of all fuel ethanol. Corn ranks a close second and it is the primary source for biofuel in the United States. 

Dr. Rodel D. Lasco, the Philippine coordinator for the World Agroforestry Center and a member of the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, said the mitigation potentials for bioethanol is between 500 to 1,200 megatons of carbon dioxide. For biodiesel, the mitigation potentials are between 100 to 300 megatons of carbon dioxide. 

The use of biofuels in the Philippines started even before the Japanese occupation, according to the article, “The Philippine experience in substitutes for gasoline and diesel,” written by Filipino scientist and inventor Felix Maramba. 

“At this time (Second World War), gasoline was the standard motor oil fuel, but in 1922 some sugar centrals started using an alcohol-gasoline blend for locomotives and trucks hauling cranes,” Maramba wrote in his article, which was published in the book The Filipinas Journal. “The La Carlota Sugarcane Experiment Station started using straight hydrous alcohol as motor fuel in 1928. The sugarcane farms followed suit; so did some bus companies.” 

So it is no wonder why the Philippines are the first country in Southeast Asia to enact a law on biofuels. The Biofuels Act of 2006 aims to “develop and utilize indigenous renewable and sustainably-sourced clean energy sources to reduce dependence on imported oil.” 

The Act, which was signed in January 12, 2007, also envisions increasing rural employment and income, mitigating toxic and greenhouses gas emissions, and ensuring the availability of alternative and renewable clean energy “without any detriment to the natural ecosystem, biodiversity and food reserves of the country.” 

The Department of Agriculture said the reduction in fuel consumption as a result of the enactment of the Biofuels Act would save the country the P17.3 billion a year spent on imported oil stock. 

Currently, there are two types of biofuels available in the Philippines: bioethanol (which can be produced from sugarcane, cassava, corn, sweet sorghum, and other starch and sugar-bearing crops, most of which are still under research and development) and biodiesel (derived from plant oils like coconut, soybean, rapeseed, canola, sunflower, jatropha, malunggay, and palm oil). 

Marriz B. Agbon, president of the Philippine Agricultural Development and Commercial Corporation (PADCC), reported that currently 8,889 hectares are planted to biodiesel while only 2,780 hectares are devoted to bioethanol. 

The Philippines is the first country to use coconut as source for biodiesel. Studies have shown that for every liter of coconut methyl ester (CME) consumed, it generates reduction of three kilograms of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, being a saturated biodiesel, emission of oxides of nitrogen (another greenhouse gas) is substantially reduced. 

The Biofuels Act mandates the blending of biodiesel and bioethanol to diesel and gasoline, respectively. Biodiesel started with 1% blending in 2007 and now the blend required is 2%. In the case of bioethanol, 5% blend is needed as of this year and is expected to jump to 10% blend by 2011. With this directive, increasing demands for biofuels is already felt. 

“There is no way we won’t follow [the Biofuels Act]. It is mandated by law,” said Dr. Nena O. Espiritu, professor at the College of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). 

The current demand for biofuels in the country is estimated at 980,000 liters per year. This represents the biodiesel requirement of different government agencies. However, the demand for biofuels in the country is expected to rise to 187 million gallons of ethanol and 54 million gallons of biodiesel by 2011. 

While coconut is the number source of biodiesel in the Philippines, it is the jatropha (scientific name: Jatropha curcas) that has been given prominence by most experts due to demand of the product abroad. In United Kingdom, an oil company has been producing biodiesel from jatropha oils to meet the demand of the European community for biodiesel. Its refinery can produce up to 8 million liters of biodiesel per year, equivalent to about 22,000 liters daily. 

Locally, jatropha is known as tubang bakod, tuba-tuba, makasla and tagumbao. Its seeds contain more than 30 percent oil, which can be processed into jatropha methyl ester (JME). Studies in the Philippines showed that you need at least three kilograms of jatropha seeds to produce one liter of JME. 

Today, planting of jatropha is on high gear not only in Luzon but also in Visayas and Mindanao. Most of these plantings are a result of the promotion of local government units, according to Dr. Espiritu, who conducted a study on biofuels production and its effects on social and economic environments. 

Just a word of warning: the seeds of jatropha are poisonous. Dr. Carmina Leoncio, in a letter published in a national magazine, stated: “Jatropha is a common cause of poisoning among children, since kids are attracted by the appearance of the seeds, which look like nuts.” 

On the other hand, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in India is promoting sweet sorghum. Similar to grain sorghum, it can be a major source for bioethanol production. 

According to ICRISAT’s Rex L. Navarro, the ethanol production process is eco-friendly compared to production from molasses. In addition, ethanol burning quality is superior with “high octane rating” and less sulphur emission than from sugarcane. 

But one issue that most people are concerned about is the competition of fuel crop plantation with food production. Dr. Espiritu’s study, particularly on jatropha, proved otherwise. 

For one, there are now new ways of combining food production with energy crop production. In addition, jatropha can be planted in the country’s idle lands, estimated to be about 8.8 million hectares. 

Irrigated lands and those lands utilized for rice and corn production can’t be converted to energy crop production. “The land to be used shall be consistent with the natural expansion of the municipality of locality, as contained in the approved physical framework and land use plan,” clarified PADCC’S Agbon. 

More importantly, economists and social scientists have found that food insecurity is “a result not simply because of food unavailability but poverty.” As Dr. Espiritu puts it: “Food insecure people do not have the income to buy food that is available. If jatropha production can help raise the incomes of small farmers and rural laborers, then it may in fact lead to improved food security.” 

Meanwhile, Worldwatch’s Suzanne Hunt suggests that “government incentives be used to minimize competition between food and fuel crops and to discourage expansion onto ecologically valuable lands.” 

But is it really profitable to use biofuels? In the United States, a study was conducted on the impacts of biofuels and fuel markets. Analyzing the impact of corn ethanol, the study found that biofuels reduced the average price of fuel between one and three percent and increased corn price by between 5 and 20 percent. 

“This saved up to $4 billion in fuel costs, increased the food bill by up to $20 billion, and raised farm income by up to $18 billion,” the study pointed out.