Biofuels: the cons



Whilst the use of wood is potentially sustainable, in many ‘developing’ countries wood fuel is being used at a rate that exceeds its re-growth. This is not only unsustainable but also results in villagers having to travel ever-increasing distances, often involving great hardship, to gather sufficient firewood for their daily needs. Also, when it has been gathered, firewood is often burned very inefficiently in open fires – as was the case in Britain and many other ‘developed’ countries until quite recently.

This not only results in excess greenhouse gas emissions, as we have seen, but also gives much less effective warmth than if an efficient stove were used. Moreover, it usually results in high levels of smoke pollution, with very detrimental health effects..

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Beyond air pollution, a reliance on wood as a source of fuel often leads to deforestation. Not only does this reduce the amount of vegetation, so useful for ‘metabolising’ CO2 but, without trees roots to stabilize the land surface, rates of soil erosion tend to increase. This may, in turn, lead to pollution of water sources (as we shall see later on).

For instance, Nocete et al. 2005. demonstrated that the arrival of intensive metallurgy in Iberia during the third millennium BC was widespread with widespread deforestation (the wood utilised for smelting ores). This is indicated by a clear decline in tree pollen and an increase in wood charcoal in the archaeological record.

This is just one of many examples from human history where demand for combustion fuels has led to extensive deforestation and resulted in environmental pollution.