Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The connection between biofuels and air pollution

By using biofuels instead of fossil fuels our society could reduce the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions and thus effectively fight against the climate change. Generally speaking, biofuels are environmentally more friendly option as compared to fossil fuels (burning biofuels is often being touted as carbon neutral because plants soak up carbon when they grow and release it when they burn) but nonetheless biofuels are still being connected with several environmental concerns.

The latest study done by the English scientists and published in the journal Nature Climate Change argues whether using biofuels instead of fossil fuels is really good for environment. Though they accept that growing biofuels is generally a good thing because it reduces the amount of carbon dioxide, it can also lead to serious levels of air pollution.

The researchers say that if biofuels were to be produced in large quantities this would lead to harmful levels of air pollution in many areas because many fast growing sources of biofuels emit high levels of the chemical isoprene as they grow, and isoprene, once mixed with the other air pollutants in the air, leads to the creation of toxic ozone.

Willow, the potential fast-growing biofuel source, emits high levels of harmful chemical isoprene.

The ozone pollution is not only harmful to human health but it is also said to reduce crop yields. The researchers have calculated that the creation of ozone from wood-based biofuels to meet the European Union's 2020 goal would cause nearly 1,400 premature deaths a year, costing society more than $7 billion. This would also reduce would reduce the annual value of wheat and maize production by $1.5 billion since ozone is known to impair crop growth.

This study suggests moving biofuel plantations far away from polluted population centers is one of the possible solutions to reduce the ozone formation, with the other being genetic engineering to limit the isoprene emissions.

The researchers are yet to do more comprehensive studies on how the air quality is being affected by growing biofuels. Air quality is just one of many controversies being connected with increased biofuel production with most important being the fuel vs. food debate (by competing for cropland biofuels could lead to increase in food prices, and could cause even more hunger in the world).