The environmental cost of biofuels

Our world has a problem. Laws are written by elected officials don’t examine their 2nd and 3rd order consequences. Promoting the use of biofuels is a pristine example of our politician’s inability to think beyond the head-line grabbing “green is good” narrative. Superficially, burning biofuels makes sense. Plants absorb carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere to grow. These are processed into bioethanol or bio-diesel, and these are burnt to produce energy. The carbon in the fuel is released but more plants are grown and that carbon is reabsorbed. The cycle is repeated, and no net carbon is released into the atmosphere. Therefore, burning biofuels to produce energy seems to be a good way to reduce carbon emissions from fuels, but it has 2nd and 3rd order consequences which can only be grasped by appreciating how little energy crops contain and how much fuel we consume.

The European Union Renewable Energy Directive’s target aims for 10% [J1] of all transportation fuel to be from renewable sources by 2020. However, nobody involved in writing this directive did the maths. They haven’t calculated how many hectares of land would be required to produce 10% of our transportation fuel. And they haven’t considered the legislations wider effects. If they had, it wouldn’t exist.

The following calculations are based on 2017 statistics.

In 2017 petrol and diesel vehicles in the United Kingdom burnt 11.7 and 24.9 million tonnes [J2] of fuel respectively.

At 2017 consumption levels, to meet the 10% target, UK’s 2020 fuel supplies will need to include approximately 1.2 million tonnes of bioethanol, and 2.5 million tonnes of biodiesel.

The UK government’s Forest Research [J3] division states that calorific value of bio-ethanol and bio-diesel are 27MJ/kg and 37MJ/kg respectively. Multiply those numbers by the mass of biofuel required for the UK’s 10% target gives the total fuel requirement in joules. Those are 32400TJ and 92500TJ respectively.

Forest Research also state that the energy produced per hectare per annum of bioethanol from wheat, and biodiesel from rapeseed oil, are 62GJ and 41GJ [J4] respectively.

Divide the total energy required to meet 10% of all transportation needs by the energy content per hectare of biofuel to estimate the total land area required to produce the fuel.

For bioethanol it is 523,000ha while biodiesel requires a staggering 2,260,000ha. A combined total of 2,783,000ha.

Five-hundred thousand hectares is a quarter of the land area of Wales. 2.26 million hectares is 1.1 times the total area of Wales. Therefore, for the United Kingdom to produce just 10% of all transportation fuel from biofuels it would need to devote almost 1.5 times the land area of Wales solely to these crops.

The United Kingdom has just over 3.1 million hectares of permanent cropland[J5] . Growing 2.783 million hectares of biofuel would use 89% of all the UK’s cropland. This is just to produce 10% of transportation fuel.

That previous calculations are just for the United Kingdom. However, this legislation applies to the entire European Union so these calculations must be extended.

Total energy from diesel and petrol that is burnt in the EU is 8.4 million TJ, and 3.2 million TJ respectively[J6] . Add to this the 0.5 million TJ of biodiesel and 0.1 million TJ of bioethanol already used and total energy consumptions are 8.9 million TJ and 3.3 million TJ.

Apply the same calculation method as above, and we find that land area required to grow biofuels to produce 10% of the EU’s road transportation fuel is 27 million hectares, which is half the entire area of France.

However, most biofuel is grown outside the European Union. A significant proportion comes from areas that were Indonesian rainforest, but are now palm oil plantations. As over 60% of the palm [J7] oil the EU imports is used in bio-fuels, you inadvertently contribute to rainforest destruction by filling your car with fuel.

Because Indonesia is a poor country, and rainforest has very little direct commercial value, they will continue to destroy rainforests and replace them with biofuel crops for as long as wealthy nations dictates demand green fuels from sustainable sources.

However, EU has announced that it will phase out biofuel from palm oil plantations by beginning 2023 with a complete ban by 2030. But with the target of 10% still in place, other countries will fill the gap in the market by similarly replacing their natural vegetation with high energy crops. Destruction of our natural environments is the inevitable consequence of using biofuels. Thus, ironically, this ‘green’ legislation directly increases the chances of multiple species extinction resulting from habitat loss.

Calculation table


Mass burnt in UK 2017 (Million tonnes)

Biofuel mass required to meet 10% EU Directive (Million tonnes)

Total Energy contained in biofuels, required for 10% target (TJ)

Area of land required to produce biofuels for 10% target (ha)