The common view
In times where concerns over depletion of non-renewable resources and climate change are drastically increasing, it seems easy to accept that bio-based products are without a doubt better than fuel-based products. It just looks logical that resources we can grow and maintain (under sustainable practices) and which also take part of the natural cycles on Earth, such as the carbon cycle, are much better that the ones we extract and disrupt the natural systems.
In this new chapter of Mythbusters, we raise again the question of whether the logical and commonly accepted assumption is always correct. To elucidate this, I will present some facts based on life cycle thinking and LCA studies that will help us draw a clearer scenario to pull out our conclusions from.
What are the impacts?
Bio-based materials can be a better solution to fossil fuels, but before we make this statement, it’s important to know that in some cases, bio-based materials also can result in significant impacts.
Let’s start with the benefits of bio-based products, namely:
- They have the potential to tackle environmental issues such as climate change, since biofuels could provide greenhouse gas savings and improve air quality. Biomass absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) during its growth, which is released again into the use phase or waste phase — therefore it can be considered climate neutral.
- Bio-based products also help to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, which are a finite resource.
- Bio-based products also can help to tackle social issues, creating employment and rural development.
It all sounds great and pretty clear, right? However, there are some downsides that complicate the scenario:
- Production of biomass requires the use of fertilizers, which result in nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times stronger than CO2.
- Fossil fuels are needed to produce bio-based fuels; to grow, transport and process them.
- Also there is impact in land use, or ‘impact in ecosystems’ as we call this in LCA jargon. Biomass needs land to be grown, requiring new land to be transformed into agriculture, (called change in land use), or it is competing with land required for food production.
- And last but not least, pesticides are used in conventional agriculture, which can impact human health.
Differences within bio sources
Another important consideration is the type of bio-based source to which we are referring. In the case of biofuels, there are big differences in terms of impact between first- and second-generation biofuels. First-generation corresponds generally to commodity crops as feedstock, for example: corn, wheat, or sugar cane. Second-generation biofuels utilize non-food crops: production by-products, agricultural residues and waste — more efficient, as they generally don’t require new production of crops and reutilize residues that would otherwise end up as waste.
Bio-based products are always better: Myth or Fact?
While bio-based products can be a great alternative to fuel-based materials considering resource scarcity and climate change, they can still negatively impact ecosystems and human health. Whether a bio-based product is better or not will depend on the type of biomass, country of production, agriculture techniques, and efficiency in the production, among others.
Therefore, my advice is to take a look to the entire life cycle the product you are assessing, including all relevant environmental impacts related. Then you will be able to make a well-informed decision, based on the facts you have in hand.