Biofuels life cycle costs

Biofuels have an enormous potential to contribute to renewable energy around the world. However if critical factors such as Tillage, Nitrous Oxide (N2O) emissions and chemical use are not considered they can easily create more problems than they solve.

Pesticides, Herbicides and Insecticides

Pesticides, herbicides and insecticides are potentially toxic to humans, pollute waterways and have harmful effects on biodiversity (Mole 2011). Neonicotinoids have been linked to the decline of the honeybee (Tennekes 2010)(Vanengelsdorp & Meixner 2010).


In agriculture, the preparation of soil for planting and the cultivation of soil after planting is known as Tillage (Tillage 2011). This requires energy and uncultivated soil stores significant quantities of carbon, disturbing the soil to release stored carbon as carbon dioxide (Kemp & Wexler 2010). Surface run off also increases causing nutrient loss, reducing soil moisture, decreasing soil particulate size and increasing soil erosion. In the past 40 years Soil Organic Matter (SOM) has declined, agricultural losses of 50% SOM are not unusual. Growing crops that require less cultivation lowers energy consumption and increases SOM and therefore carbon sequestration (Holland 2004).
Cultivation of Maize causes more soil erosion than that of any other crop (Xu et al. 2011).
If established on marginal/degraded land, or displacing annual agricultural crops, perennial energy grasses and short-rotation tree crops can generate benefits such as reduced erosion, reduced nutrient leaching, increased soil carbon content and increased soil productivity (Berndes 2002).
In conventional farming Non tillage practices have been found to increase yields as well as overall soil quantity (Teasdale & Cavigelli 2008). Perennial crops can be rotated with grain crops to minimise their effect on soil quality (Teasdale & Cavigelli 2008). As an example converting 12% arable land to Miscanthus results in increase in SOC, Short rotation coppice results in loss initially.

Water Footprint

Focusing on the Ukraine. The water footprint of maize is marginally above the global average of 1222 m3/ton (Gerbens-Leenes & Hoekstra 2011). Rapeseed is listed as having a green water footprint of 3846 m3/ton , wheat is 1282 – 3954 m3/ton , Barley Green water 1404 m3/ton, Soybeans 2906 m3/ton (Mekonne & Hoekstra 2010).
Sugar beet production in the Ukraine (figure 2) has a Water Footprint far above the sugar beet global average of 133 m3/ton and is causing water stress in the Dnieper Basin. Water from this region flows into the black sea, excessive use of fertillisers and lack of waste water treatment has been blamed for environmental damage to the black sea ecosystem (Gerbens-Leenes & Hoekstra 2011).
Recently research has been carried out into using residual sugar cane/beet biomass to produce ethanol (A. Walter & Ensinas 2010). This may seem like a logical step however it needs to be critically evaluated as these residues are normally left on the ground returning essential nutrients and carbon to the soil and are not necessarily a waste product (Lal 2005).
In 2008 86% of Global freshwater consumption was used for agriculture, in the Central Asian region surrounding Ukraine it is 90% (Gerbens-Leenes & Hoekstra 2011) An increase in biofuels production has the potential to increase water competition, decrease water quality and damage ecosystems (Gerbens-Leenes & Hoekstra 2011).
Virtual water is the water locked up in produce during its cultivation. Between 1995 and 1999 the Ukraine was listed as the 13th largest virtual water exporter in the world (Hoekstra 2003). Delicate regions are highlighted in figure 3.

Estimates of the effect biofuels on worldwide food production vary massively between 2-3% and 70-75% (Dell’ Aguzzo 2008).
Ukraine has a diminishing population and a surplus of land, so competition for food is not thought to be a huge issue (Raslavicius et al. 2011). However in the future there is expected to be a worldwide shortage of food and land may not be so abundant.


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