Biofuel has been hailed as the future of clean energy, but a report from the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management shows some biofuels are leading to net increases in carbon emissions.

How did they determine this? The panel looked at first-generation biofuels like ethanol, which is derived from sugar cane. According to the report, extracting ethanol from sugar cane can lead to emission reductions of between 70 percent and more than 100 percent when the fuel is substituted for traditional fuels. As reported by Business Green, the panel calculated that the use of biodiesel from palm oil plantations grown on deforested peat lands results in greenhouse gas emissions that are up to 2,000 percent greater than those generated from fossil fuels.

Further, the report confirmed what environmental organizations have long maintained — that the use of land in developing countries is indirectly contributing to deforestation in places like Brazil and Indonesia. 

Accordingly, many biofuel companies plant on abandoned land. But this may not be the best solution. The report estimates that between 118 and 508 million hectares of global cropland would be needed to meet 10 percent of worldwide transport first-generation biofuel demand by 2030. Further, "using abandoned or so-called waste land for biofuels might be a sensible option, but it may also have implications for biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions might be better cut by forestry schemes.” In the end, it is still more efficient to use abandoned land for reforestation or solar power projects.

The U.N. report also says that generating electricity at local power stations “using wood, straw, seed oils and other crop or waste materials is generally more energy efficient that converting biomass to liquid fuels."  

The report is meant to be an implicit criticism of the EU’s plan to use more biofuels. So what's the good news? Timo Mäkelä of the European Commission says it could help in the design and implementation of new targets and sustainability criteria for the use of biofuels.

Also on MNN: