Can algae save the world?

Biofuels are one of the technologies that could potentially help us cut our emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2). They’re controversial. But you can use the three questions to highlight the most important issues and decide where you stand.

Can biofuels really slow down climate change?

Burning fossil fuels releases carbon that’s been locked away for millions of years. This is rapidly adding extra CO2 to our atmosphere today. Burning biofuels also releases CO2. But this is exactly the same amount of CO2 the plant absorbed from the atmosphere while it was growing. Perfect? Not quite...

Biofuels have to be cultivated, processed and transported – and using fossil fuels to do all that adds extra CO2 to the atmosphere. We can call this biofuels’ ‘carbon footprint’.

Do biofuels work in practice?

Some power stations already use biomass as a fuel, either on its own or with coal.

Modified cars can run on pure bio-diesel or bio-ethanol. Even ordinary cars can run on petrol mixed with a dash of bio-ethanol. The UK government wants 5% of transport fuel sold at garages to be biofuel by 2010, mainly blended with standard fuel. In fact biofuels could be at a forecourt near you already.

But replacing all our energy sources with biofuels would mean growing a huge amount of biomass – and in the UK there isn’t enough land.

Will biofuels do more harm than good?

The more land that is used for biofuels worldwide, the less there is for food crops. This has already led to rising food prices in Italy and Mexico. At worst, competition for land could lead to dwindling food supplies and starvation.

In some countries farmers are chopping down rainforests to plant biofuel crops. This threatens wildlife, and releases greenhouse gases by removing the trees and peatlands that lock away CO2.

On the other hand growing biofuel crops could help each country produce its own energy, and it could also boost some farmers’ incomes.

Find out more about biofuels now.