Full life-cycle accounting questions bio- and nuclear fuels

Here is the first quantitative study to confirm what has been probable for some time: that the move to biofuels, with the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, may actually increase emissions, relative to the fossil fuel base.

A University of Leeds study by an atmosphere scientist, Dr. Dominic Spracklen, and Dr Renton Righelato of the non-profit organisation The World Land Trust, have undertaken the first full life-cycle analysis of the emissions from biofuel development. They conclude that the switch to biofuels would reduce the carbon sink effect by between two and nine times. This estimate includes the calculation of emission impacts from the clearing of forests in places such as Indonesia for the planting of biofuel crops–impacts which also extend to significant ecological and social disruption, which are not included in these costs.

Moreover, the authors calculate that in order to reach the 10% biofuel by 2020 target recently adopted by the UK government, some 40% of Europe’s arable land would have to be converted to biofuel crops–and that still leaves the 90% taken up by fossil fuels untouched. They note that land conversions of this order can’t be contemplated either in Europe or North America, so that the weight of them will inevitably fall on developing countries, with the negative impacts outlined above.

The promotion of biofuels has come in the absence of full lifecycle accounting, which is absolutely essential to a comprehensive understanding of the environmental impact of new technologies and processes. A similar absence of lifecycle accounting has distorted the nuclear energy debate. Nuclear power stations are being promoted as clean and green–as emitting no greenhouse emissions. However, a full life-cycle analysis takes into account not only what is emitted by the power station, but the combined impacts of mining, enrichment, fuel fabrication, decomissioning and waste storage. At the highest grades of ore, nuclear stations produce more energy than they consume. But at the lower grades of ore, which are far more abundant, nuclear power stations become net consumers of energy, all of it from declining fossil fuel sources, with the resulting increase on greenhouse emissions.

These facts are relatively simple to establish, and one wonders why they are not more widely recognised, and incorporated into national and international greenhouse and energy strategic thinking. Increasingly it’s becoming clear that both the biofuel and the nuclear options are more of the strategies being promoted by developed economies in order to avoid facing the economic and social implications of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels.

In their obsession with economic growth, and with maintaining the so-called ‘standards of living’ (a value-laden term, if ever there was one: as noted in previous blogs, this is a highly relative notion) of developed economies seem prepared to promote any degree of greenwash (the proposal that biofuels and nuclear fuels are environmentally advantageous) or to exploit the environments of developing countries to whatever degree is necessary.

In the end this kind of scientific ignorance, and this kind of inequitable action, across countries and generations, must be put firmly rejected by a world polity that is seeking a coherent, just and prudent way forward.

Report from The Guardian link here.


3 thoughts on “Full life-cycle accounting questions bio- and nuclear fuels

  1. When I went back to the article in The Guardian, I saw plenty of claims about biofuels, but I failed to see any references to your claims about nuclear energy.

    The fact is that there are a number of studies that show conclusively that the total life-cycle emissions of nuclear energy are comparable to renewable sources of energy. Click the following link to see just a few of those studies:

    http://tinyurl.com/2gkptq

  2. In the end this kind of scientific ignorance,

    I suggest you look at your own scientific ignorance first, mate. Uranium mining is no more energy intensive than coal mining, except that orders of magnitude less than fuel are required. Enrichment is far less energy intensive these with gas centrifuge enrichment and hopefully soon laser enrichment and this energy can be provided from nuclear power stations anyway as it is in France.

    And speaking of France, they get 80% of their electricity from nuclear power. Have they discovered perpetual motion?

  3. Pingback: Life Cycle Accounting of Fuels « World is Green

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