A more sophisticated approach needs to be taken towards the development of biofuels if the emerging industry is to ensure it does not damage the environment, according to a major new UN report released last week.
The report, the first by the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, concludes that some first-generation biofuels, such as ethanol produced from sugar cane, can deliver net reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It calculates that extracting ethanol from sugar cane, as currently practiced in countries such as Brazil, can lead to emission reductions of between 70 per cent, and more than 100 per cent when the fuel is substituted for petrol.
But it also echoes previous studies that warned some biofuels are leading to net increases in carbon emissions, calculating that the use of biodiesel from palm oil plantations grown on deforested peatlands, for example, results in greenhouse gas emissions that are up to 2,000 per cent greater than those generated from fossil fuels.
In addition, the report states categorically that biofuel adoption targets in developed countries, such as the UK’s Renewable Fuel Transport Obligation, are contributing to land use changes in developing countries – a position long held by environmental groups that have argued that biofuel demand is indirectly contributing to deforestation in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia.
The report estimates that globally between 118 and 508 million hectares of cropland would be needed to meet 10 per cent of worldwide transport fuel demand by 2030 if first-generation biofuels are used.
Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and executive director of the UN Environment Programme, argued there was a need for a more sophisticated debate on biofuel use, saying they are neither a panacea nor a pariah.
“On one level it is a debate about which energy crops to grow and where, and about the way different countries and biofuel companies promote and manage the production and conversion of plant materials for energy purposes,” he said. “On another level it is a choice about how humanity best manages its finite land bank and balances a range of competing interests in a world of six billion people, rising to more than nine billion by 2050.”
The report notes that generating electricity at local power stations using wood, straw, seed oils and other crop or waste materials “is generally more energy efficient that converting biomass to liquid fuels”. And it argues that while using abandoned land to produce energy crops is preferable to clearing virgin land for plantations, it is often more efficient still to use abandoned land for reforestation or solar power projects.
“Using abandoned or so-called waste land for biofuels might be a sensible option, but it may also have implications for biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions might be better cut by forestry schemes,” the report states.
Additionally, it warns that higher fuel efficiency standards and the development of alternative technologies, such as plug-in vehicles, could dramatically reduce emissions from the transport sector without the need for biofuels.
Despite its implicit criticism of the EU’s plans to increase use of biofuels, the report was welcomed by Timo Mäkelä of the European Commission, who said it would help in the design and implementation of new targets and sustainability criteria for the use of biofuels.
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