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Second generation of biofuels could give forests a break

Biofuels have been criticised for propelling deforestation, but a second generation of this energy source may have the potential to supply a larger proportion of our fuel sustainably, experts say.

The European Union seems to agree. In trying to encourage the use of second-generation biofuels to meet renewable energy targets, it doubled the value assigned to them as compared to first generation.

Growing concerns about climate change and fluctuating oil prices have reignited interest in wind, solar, geothermal and other forms of ‘clean’ energy in recent years, especially among industrialised nations.

First-generation biofuels — those derived from starches, sugar, soy, animal fats, palm and vegetable oil – have won wide popular support.

But because some of these crops require a tremendous amount of land, scientists worry that forested areas will be cut down or burned to make way for agricultural expansion.

Some of these crops also have a low energy return. Soy and rapeseed, for instance, produce only 500 to 1000 litres of biodiesel fuel per hectare, according to the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability , meaning the life-cycle production and transport emissions in some cases exceed those of traditional fossil fuels.

But experts are still hopeful about second-generation biofuels – those derived from woody crops, agricultural residues, waste and inedible crops, like stems and switch grass.

It turns out they are often both better for the environment and more fuel efficient than their earlier cousins, scientists say. Though a few first-generation crops – sugarcane, sugar beet and sweet sorghum – perform well environmentally, with sugar cane being the most economically competitive among these.

To read the full article by Andrea Booth click here.