Biofuels Can Mitigate Global Warming

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Earth – touted to be the green planet -- has been warming since prehistoric times, but man’s tampering with the environment has made the temperature change faster. 

“While human activities during the past century have damaged a long list of nature systems, most of these problems are local or regional in scope and can be revered in years to decades if sufficient effort is exerted,” Christopher Flavin wrote in his book, Slowing Global Warming: A Worldwide Strategy. “Changes to the earth’s atmosphere on the other hand are global and irreversible not only in our lifetimes but in our children’s and grandchildren’s as well.” 

It was Dr. James E. Hansen, of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, who first raised the problem of global warming. In 1988, he told an American Senate hearing that “the greenhouse effect is changing our climate now.” 

In a Reader’s Digest article, author Robert James Bidinotto, explains greenhouse effect in these words: “When sunlight warms the earth, certain gases in the lower atmosphere, acting like the glass in a greenhouse, trap some of the heart as it radiates back into space. These greenhouse gases, primarily water vapor and including carbon dioxide, methane and man-made chlorofluorocarbons, warm our planet, making life possible. If they were more abundant, greenhouse gases might trap too much heat.” 

The burning of fossil fuels and destruction of forests are expected to increase the earth’s atmosphere by up to 5 degrees Centigrade by 2100. This rise will created more stress on Asia’s already overtaxed environment and change the way people live. 

“Global warming is real as shown now by freak weather conditions (heavy rainfall, ferocious typhoons, and drought), higher temperatures (heat), melting ice giving to sea level rise and many others,” commented Dr. William Dar, the Filipino director general of India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. 

In 2007, the Nobel Peace prize recipient United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that sea levels might rise by between 18 centimeters and 59 centimeters in the coming century. 

The Philippines ranks fourth in the Global Climate Risk Index and 15 of the 16 regions of the Philippines are vulnerable to sea level rise. According to former Environment Secretary Elisea Gozun, the western half of Metro Manila would be gobbled up by the sea if water levels rise by three meters. 

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration estimates that a one-meter rise in Manila Bay “will lead to 5,000 hectares being inundated and 2 million people will actually be displaced,” Gozun said. 

If global warming is not curtailed, drought will be severe in Western Mindanao while rainfall will increase in Central Luzon. “Take note, you have Central Luzon, they’re our food source and they’ll have increased rainfall,” Gozun said. 

Katherine Richardson, a climate scientist at the University of Copenhagen, deplored: “We have to act and we have to act now. We need to realize what a risk it is they are taking on behalf of their own constituents, the world’s societies and, even more importantly, future generations.” 

According to Flavin, one possible solution to the current global warming problem is for countries to develop energy sources that would replace the fossil fuels on which human beings rely so heavily. 

“We have to decrease the use of fossil fuels to help mitigate the consequences of global warming,” Matanog M. Mapandi, the Department of Energy’s assistance secretary, told the participants of a workshop for media practitioners held at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) in Los Baños, Laguna. 

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 come from other countries while the remaining 10 percent are from imported coal.

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. 

The Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Program reported that transport accounts for over 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In 2005, there were an estimated 650 million vehicles on the road with that number expected to double by 2030. 

Concerns over global warming have focused attention on the possibility of replacing fossil fuels with biofuels. Defined as solid, liquid or gaseous fuels, they are derived from relatively recently dead biological material and are 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. 

Experts claim biofuels have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100 percent (relative to petroleum fuels) because energy crops can also sequester carbon in the soil as they grow. 

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 biofuels in the United States. 

Dr. Rodel D. Lasco, the Philippine coordinator for the World Agroforestry Center and An IPCC member, 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. 

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. 

In the Philippines, the Department of Agriculture said the reduction in fuel consumption as a result of the enactment of the Biofuels Act of 2006 would save the country the P17.3 billion a year spent on imported oil stock. The aims to “develop and utilize indigenous renewable and sustainably-sourced clean energy sources to reduce dependence on imported oil.” 

Republic Act 9367 mandates the use of a minimum of one percent biodiesel blend within three months of the passage of the law and a minimum of two percent blend within two years (May 2009). For bioethanol, at least a 5 percent blend should be achieved by May 2009 and a 10 percent blend by May 2011. 

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. 

One success story on biofuel production comes from Brazil. Although the country had been carrying out research into the use of sugarcane to produce fuel as far back as the 1930s, it was only in the 1970s — when the Arab oil crisis sent petrol prices through the roof — that the Brazilian government embarked on large-scale investment in ethanol research. 

The result has been dramatic. The country’s ethanol program has not only contributed significantly to its energy security, but has also become a major source of income, with Brazil now supplying around 30 per cent of the world’s total supply of biofuels. 

Today, many prominent voices in the United States, including President Barack Obama, have voiced support for the large-scale production of biofuels as a central strategy for solving the problems of energy supply and global warming. 

“It is possible -- if the world is really serious about climate change, if people continue to be concerned about energy security, and given the breakthroughs in technology that now seem plausible -- biofuels could represent a significant amount of the transport fuel mix in the future,” said BP Biofuels President Phillip New. 

Flavin, who is the president of Worldwatch Institute, agrees: “At a time of volatile gas prices and rising concern about global warming, it has become clear that biofuels can play a role in reducing dependence on oil and curbing climate change.” 

But even then, there are some apprehensions about biofuel production. Biofuels need land, which means traditional food crops are being elbowed off of the field for fuel crops. Biofuel production, protesters claimed, is literally “taking the food out of people’s mouths and putting into our gas tanks.” 

This was the gist of the 2,500-page International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development issued last year during UN’s World Food Program meeting. 

“We’re not saying that biofuels are a bad idea,” pointed out Jonathan Foley, a co-author on the study and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “This study just indicates that biofuel production should not be occurring at the expense of tropical forests. Other ways of producing biofuels in the tropics — on degraded lands, former agricultural areas and so on — are clearly possible, and could have tremendous environmental, economic and social benefits.”