Frontline Online: Where should we be looking for waste we can turn to energy?

| 13th January 2013

Biofuel production threatens air quality and crop yields

In her new weekly column, the Ecologist's Lorna Howarth reports on the stories that show standing up for what we believe in can and does make a real difference.
Recent pilot studies show you can make energy from human waste

Recent pilot studies show you can make energy from human waste

 Biofuels are a contentious subject: whilst undoubtedly it makes no sense to use crops such as maize to produce biofuel – not least because it drives the global price of foodstuffs up dramatically and impacts the poorest in society most heavily – new technology has enabled the production of biofuel from the stalks and chaff of food crops; essentially, energy from waste.

In the UK where planning applications for biomass energy generators are coming in thick and fast, the need for wood to fuel them is a pressing issue. It is absolutely nonsensical to bulldoze tracts of the precious boreal forests for fuel, but it seems there is another unforeseen problem if we use the alternative: plantations of fast-growing willow, poplar and eucalyptus all of which have now been found to emit higher levels than expected of the naturally-occurring chemical isoprene which, when mixed with other air pollutants and sunlight creates a toxic layer of ozone.

According to a new report published on 6th January 2013 in the journal Nature Climate Change, isoprene pollution from biofuel plantations is likely to cause 1,400 premature deaths a year in Europe by 2020 and will also inhibit crop growth in both wheat and maize production, costing farmers up to $1.5 billion a year.

Siting biofuel plantations well away from centres of industry and population will help reduce the presence of this toxic ozone, but ultimately, these side-effects of biofuel production could be very costly to the whole of society.

It seems then that fighting climate change by producing biofuels is not the 'magic-bullet' solution many hoped for – but could the waste to energy principle be applied more effectively to produce another form of ‘biofuel’? Undoubtedly, the UK, like every other country, produces millions of tones of a biological waste every day: I am talking about humanure. Recent pilot studies have proven that it is possible to make energy from human waste. Perhaps we are looking in the wrong direction for our source of raw materials?


Lorna Howarth is a writer and environmentalist. She is a contributing editor to Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and the founder of a small independent publishing ageny, The Writer Factor Contact:

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