Biofuels: An Intro

Biofuels range from the oldest source of energy, wood, to high tech systems such as anaerobic digestion (AD). The story of climate change begins with the use of coal as the main fuel for the industrial revolution. While large numbers of people in non-industrialised societies without access to centralised energy still use wood or animal dung as their main a source of energy for heating and cooking, the industrial use of wood and other bio-fuels has grown rapidly as a means to wean off fossil fuels in the West. To meet regulatory standards the UK’s largest coal plant, Drax, has converted to partly run on wood fuel. Combined Heat and Power running on wood chips similarly links energy production to industrial-scale harvesting, shipping and combustion of biofuel.

Other sources of biofuel include specific crops with high calorific content. Brazil famously developed ethanol for use in cars by using surplus waste from the sugar industry. Ethanol production is now linked to corn farming, particularly in the USA. While the Brazilian model began from closing a loop to make better use of an existing waste stream, if crops are grown primarily for fuel it prompts concern over whether the use of land for fuel might outweigh the use of the land for food – a claim countered by biofuel advocates.

The biofuel sector covers a range of innovative industrial processing facilities, such as the Vivergo plant in Hull, England, built by AB Sugar, Dupont & BP which produces vehicle fuel and animal feed. Anaerobic digestion (AD) plants are also a major new energy source of bio-energy, generating methane from conventional agricultural waste, which is burnt for energy. Energy from Waste facilities also include those burning conventional refuse to generate heat or electricity, but these are not bio-fuels.

While this newly growing sector may help address energy security issues, the social and environmental context must be considered holistically. At its best, the biofuel industry uses the power of modern agriculture in harmony with nature to wean us off fossil. At worst, it is only a part solution that reduces but does not eliminate environmental impact once net greenhouse gases and other impacts are accounted for. The biofuels sector therefore remains highly varied and rapidly changing. The exact context of each different system is therefore vital to its potential scalability and net impact for energy and climate.

Further reading

Assessing Biofules. Towards sustainable production and use of resources. UNEP. 2009.


Biofuels production




  • A biofuel is a fuel that is produced by processing crops, plants, or agricultural, commercial, domestic, and/or industrial wastes rather than fossil fuels.
  • There are various social, economic, environmental and technical concerns around biofuel production and use. For instance, there is an ongoing critical debate around the “food vs fuel” issue, regarding the moral implication of using food crops to produce fuels. Likewise, biofuels affect food prices and food access. Similarly, biofuels have been largely connected with deforestation, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity