In recent decades, the world has witnessed a quick raise of alternative energy sources. Embedded into a broader global climate change and sustainable development discourse, renewable energy has come a long way from vague utopian discussions to implemented and successful practices and technologies.
However, the camp of renewable energy sources is not necessarily a unified homogeneous group of “good guys”, as some may imagine. One of the most controversial debates continues over biofuels, fuels produced from biomass of all sorts through biological (and not geological) processes.
Here are some of the key arguments for and against the use of biofuels as an alternative energy source.
Biofuels pros and cons
Biofuels reduce GHG emissions…
…by offering an alternative to fossil fuels. Life-cycle assessment of biofuels presented in the first in-depth UNEP assessment of biofuels  indicated in case of ethanol the rate of GHG savings as high as 70 per cent for sugar cane and up to 60 per cent for corn.
Sugar cane or corn-based fuels, as well as biodiesel, directly substitute fossil fuels. Ethanol and biodiesel are widely available in gas stations in many countries in Europe and powering some cities’ public transport .
…at the current level of technology development, production of biofuels is directly dependent on fossil fuels. Collecting biomass is a time- and fuel-intensive process .
Burning biofuels may be a better solution in terms of GHG emissions; however, the ecological footprint of the production process remains carbon-intensive. Overall, environmental impacts of biofuel production vary from one geographical area to another; yet, transport and distribution challenges are more or less universal in terms of carbon emissions.
Biofuels are widely available…
…and may help decrease national dependency on imported fossil fuels for countries that do not have their own reserves. Ethanol, for example, may be produced from sugar cane and beets, wheat and corn, as well as from cellulosic biomass (trees and grass).
Other sources that may be transformed into biofuels range from fungi to algae and animal gut bacteria . Most countries, if necessary, may tap into their biomass resources to help address their internal energy needs.
…are costly to produce and less efficient than other existing fuels on the market. The technology of refining biomass into biofuels is based on biological processes and requires a lot of land, clean water, and labor . The costs of producing biofuels sometimes outweigh the benefits.
Moreover, the quality of biofuels is lower than the one of fossil fuels so biofuels are mostly used mixed in or as additives to fossil fuels. In some vehicles, biofuels may be used with major restrictions.
Help address waste problem…
…by using waste and residue in biofuel production. According to the UNEP assessment of biofuels, residues and waste are candidates for more efficient biofuels in terms of land use.
More research is needed on this topic but some advancements have already been made in terms of policies in several European countries, especially Germany .
…create food problem in some areas. This indeed is one of the biggest disadvantages against the production of biofuels in several nations, like Brazil, for example.
Not only growing crops for biofuels often leads to deforestation , the issue of land use becomes a major challenge when they replace food crops. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, biofuel production affects food security directly in some states  and should be carefully considered by policy makers.
The list of advantages and disadvantages of biofuels presented above is by no means exhaustive. Since the sources of biofuels vary and conditions in the countries of production also differ greatly, there is no one-fit-all solution. Opinions of policy makers and the public remain polarized.
However, in a debate of such complexity it is not easy to paint opposing positions as black and white. Two things are clear, though.
First, the variety of biofuel sources gives hope that technology would eventually develop well enough to reduce costs and carbon emissions from the production process. Meanwhile, the role of socio-economic factors in the adoption of biofuel production methods is as important as that of technology.
Second, biofuels represent only one of a range of sources for renewable energy. It may work better in some geographical areas, cultures, and economies than in others. Therefore, each country should try to strike its own balance when endorsing biofuel production.