UBC Undergraduate Research

The role of biofuels in the environment, economy and society : a look at positive and potential negative impacts of biofuel production Howard, Steffy


This paper examines the often under reported and overlooked downsides of biofuel production in the environmental, economic and social sectors. Environmentally speaking, biofuels utilize renewable resources, reduce carbon monoxide emissions from cars and provide alternate forms of energy. However, the positive environmental aspects of biofuels may not counteract the negative impacts. The potential environmental downsides of biofuel production include: loss of forests and biodiversity, food security issues and implications on climate change. Economic wise, biofuels increase exports for productive countries, increase demand for biofuel crops, and increase employment rates. Furthermore, utilizing biofuels provides more affordable vehicles, and contributes to technological growth and sustainability. However, the economic benefits provided by biofuel production may not outweigh the potential downfalls. Biofuels are expensive to produce and cause increased economic losses due to loss of timber and premature cutting. In addition, biofuel plants are often owned by foreign companies who take advantage of prime biofuel productive land in underdeveloped countries. As a result, wealth is rarely distributed fairly between the investor and the local economy. Foreign investment can often lead to clashing incentives for the country and the investor. Other economic issues include: increases in food prices, and food subsidies causing price inelasticity, market instability, and inflation. The social impacts of biofuel production can be beneficial and include: employment opportunities, increased worker skills and increased worker efficiency. However, these social benefits are only ascertained if foreign companies keep biofuel production plants small and within the country. In addition, there are a lack of regulatory guidelines and policies to enforce workers’ rights. Social controversies exist where some reports have claimed that foreign companies treat biofuel workers unfairly. The absence of workers’ unions, along with minimal workers’ rights, harsh working conditions, lack of land rights and displaced farmers provide evidentiary credibility to this claim. Foreign companies tend to hire short-term, highly skilled laborers instead of providing training and opportunities to local workers. Finally, the controversial use of food crops for biofuel and the potential for rising food prices may provide a substantial reason to slow biofuel expansion. Solutions and recommendations are presented in which an alternative shrub (Jatropha) and evergreen tree (Pongamia) can be used as a non-edible alternative to biofuel food crops. Their abilities to withstand drought and marginal lands is also promising, although has limitations in crop production. In addition, burning wood residues like sawdust and wood pellets from deforestation can contribute substantially to heating and electricity. However, there are concerns regarding the carbon offset capabilities, technological capacity and fiscal feasibility of burning wood waste rather than manufacturing wood products. Cellulosic and lignocelluosic ethanol production along with algal oil is also discussed, and may be the future of biofuel production.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International