Facts on biofuels, with references

Many current biofuels use more energy to create than they give out; that is, the amount of energy used in growing, fertilising, harvesting and processing most crops generally exceeds the energy produced from the biofuel. And much of the energy used in this process comes from oil.


Ethanol doesn’t necessarily save the environment. Critics of Brazil’s cane-based ethanol programme claim that: “tropical forests cleared for sugar cane ethanol emit 50% more greenhouse gases than the production and use of the same amount of gasoline.”

A New Zealand company – Fonterra – is making ethanol from whey – a waste product from the dairy industry. However, Fonterra refuses to say whether the process is economically viable, quoting commercial sensitivity. Also, while the use of this ethanol will slightly reduce New Zealand’s emissions of greenhouse gases from cars, this reduction is small compared to greenhouse gas pollution produced by the New Zealand dairy industry. Greenhouse gases from dairy cows have increased 70% since 1990 while emissions from nitrogen fertiliser – largely due to dairy farm expansion – have increased 500%.


Growing crops like sunflowers and soya beans to create biodiesel uses more energy than the beans give out.

Moreover, much of the fuel being touted as biodiesel is not actually biodiesel; it’s ordinary diesel fuel blended with a percentage (5–20%) of straight vegetable oil.

The idea of running the world’s cars on waste cooking oil is also mainly fantasy. There’s very little used cooking oil to spare, because globally it’s already being recycled into things like soap and animal feeds.

Rather more important, used cooking oil is a drop in the ocean when it comes to supplying the West’s transport needs. According to a report from New York’s Cornell University:

“[Used cooking oil] has an available potential to produce almost 1.7 billion gallons of [biodiesel] [which is] 1.1% of [America’s] petroleum imports today.”

(A litre of cooking oil does not give out a litre of biodiesel. Much of the cooking oil used to cook french fries is eaten as part of the fries and much of the waste cooking oil left over is unusable solids.)

Because of the shortage of used cooking oils for conversion to biodiesel, there is a global race to produce vegetable oils to meet the demand. This demand has driven up food prices, making it much harder for poor people to feed their families. Also, forests are being cleared to grow crops like palm oil for biodiesel, meaning that some biofuels are actually contributing to global warming by removing forests that would have absorbed C02.

Biodiesel critics estimate that: “every ton of palm oil generates 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions - 10 times more than petroleum.”

The international biofuels industry is being sustained mainly by government subsidies. In other words, the taxpayers in those countries are paying to produce ‘green’ fuels that often result in severe environmental damage, aren’t cost effective, drive up the price of food and contribute to political instability in the Third World.