China aims to turn farm waste into biofuel under nationwide ethanol plan

But some experts say plan to reduce pollution might not be as environmentally friendly as it seems

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 September, 2017, 8:30am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 September, 2017, 8:36am

China is trying to “kill two birds with one stone” by turning agricultural waste into biofuel for cars under a nationwide policy to expand the use of ethanol in petrol announced on Wednesday.

But some experts said the plan – which aims to reduce smog from burning straw stalks and other agricultural waste as well as cut demand for fossil fuels – might not be as environmentally friendly as it seemed.

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By 2020, all petrol for vehicles will need to contain at least 10 per cent ethanol – a renewable fuel made from corn and other plant materials, according to a statement released by the National Development and Reform Commission, the National Energy Administration and other departments.

Other countries including the United States and Brazil require petrol to contain a certain amount of ethanol. The US and Brazil pioneered the use of ethanol as fuel but mainly produce it from corn and sugar cane. As well as using up stockpiles of corn, China wants to produce ethanol from cellulose – a plant’s stringy fibre rather than its seeds or fruit – in a “structural way” by 2025.

Some 5 per cent of the 170 million tonnes of corn and cassava China trades on the international market each year could generate 3 million tonnes of biofuel, according to the statement. But 30 per cent of its straw stalks and other agricultural waste could produce 20 million tonnes of ethanol.

“It will be killing two birds with one stone if China can turn one of the sources of pollution – straw stalks and farm waste – into biofuel,” said Han Xiaoping, chief executive of energy news portal “China could also reduce its dependence on oil imports with this plan in the long run.”

Emissions from farmers burning waste after harvesting have been identified as a serious contributor to air pollution in the country, and the China Meteorological Administration now uses satellites to monitor these fires.

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The Chinese government is trying to clean up its notorious pollution problem, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and investing heavily in electric cars. It has already introduced ethanol in petrol across 11 provinces, including Jilin, Liaoning and Guangxi.

But Luo Yong, an environmental scientist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the plan for wider use of ethanol petrol could actually make pollution worse. “The process of producing ethanol petrol could also produce harmful emissions,” he said. “The result of this plan might not be as good as we think.”

US efforts to use food crops as green fuel sources have been criticised for raising global food prices, eroding soil quality and increasing instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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Xiamen University energy policy specialist Lin Boqiang also doubted whether agricultural waste would be a practical source to make ethanol in the long run. “There is no incentive for farmers to cooperate with this policy because transporting a full truck of straw stalks could cost more than the price of the straw itself,” he said. “Oil companies also don’t want to use straw to generate ethanol because it takes much more straw than it does corn to generate the same amount of usable petrol,” Lin said. “Food products will remain the major source of generating ethanol in the foreseeable future.”

But Lauri Myllyvirta, an energy analyst at Greenpeace in Beijing, said the policy was the right direction for China. “The key challenge is making sure that any targets or mandates for using ethanol in transport do not lead to using edible raw materials,” he said. “This has been a problem in many other places that have set targets for biofuel use.”

Additional reporting by Jun Mai