UN warns on dangers of bioenergy
May 9, 2007
The report, Sustainable energy: A framework for decision-makers, stated that while modern bioenergy could help to meet the needs of 1.6 billion people who lacked access to electricity and 2.4 billion people who relied on the use of traditional biomass, a political framework was needed to ensure that they benefited from bioenergy.
"Biofuels accounted for the fastest-growing market for agricultural products around the world and was a billion-dollar business," said Alexander Muller, Assistant Director-General for the Sustainable Development Department of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), at a press conference at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Increasing oil prices in recent years had devastating effects on many poor countries, some of which spent six times as much on fuel as they did on health. In that regard, the modern form of bioenergy could create great opportunity. The report provided a framework for the worldwide use of bioenergy, not only for developed and industrialized countries in mitigating the effects of climate change, but also for the poorest countries to gain access to modern forms of electricity."
Gustavo Best, UN-Energy's Vice-Chairman, said there nine key sustainability issues facing bioenergy development including the implications for food security, health and gender, trade, foreign exchange balances and energy, the environment, social equity, security and climate change. He said that unless new policies were enacted to steer bioenergy use, the environmental and social damages could in some cases outweigh the benefits.
Best cited food security as an example, noting that "the availability of adequate food supplies could be threatened by biofuel production to the extent that land, water and other productive resources were diverted away from food production." Nevertheless, he said, the dangers need to be weighed by the opportunities.
"Modern bioenergy could make energy services more widely and cheaply available in remote rural areas, supporting productivity growth in agriculture or other sectors with positive implications for food availability and access," said Best. "To some extent, the report [shows] how food security risks were the mirror image of opportunities."
Best also suggested that biofuels could help add value to agricultural products but could "result in concentration of ownership that could drive the world's poorest farmers off their land and into deeper poverty."
Environmentalists have expressed concern that biofuels production is driving deforestation of biodiverse rainforests in the Amazon and southeast Asia. Best acknowledged the risks of palm oil production in Indonesia but said "the difficulty was that what worked in one country did not work in another. Planting palm oil was good in one country, but not in another. There was no straightforward answer."
Green groups have argued that biofuel trend "is being driven by big agricultural interests looking for new markets," according to the Associated Press (AP).
"More and more, people are realizing that there are serious environmental and serious food security issues involved in biofuels," the AP quoting Greenpeace biofuels expert Jan van Aken as saying. "There is more to the environment than climate change. Climate change is the most pressing issue, but you cannot fight climate change by large deforestation in Indonesia."
Best said that these positives and negatives make bioenergy policy "complex."
"Bioenergy [bridges] two complex worlds, the energy world and the agricultural world," said Best. "The report [provides] key areas of discussion that countries could look at in making decisions in a more informed and solid manner. Given the need for a high degree of policy integration, the report identified several ideas for international cooperation, including cooperation between regions and countries."
Best said he hoped the report would "contribute to a multi-stakeholder approach to bioenergy, resulting perhaps in a code of conduct."
"Bioenergy [has] the potential to reduce poverty, but done in the wrong way, the opposite [will] happen... Any bioenergy strategy must ensure that poor people did not end up paying for the fact that the industrialized world needed more bioenergy," concluded Muller.
U.N.-Energy is a consortium of 20 U.N. agencies and programs.
(4/29/2007) The Netherlands has proposed a system to reduce the environmental impact of biofuels production. The country becomes the first in the world to establish such guidelines. Environmentalists have expressed increasing concern for the establishment of energy crops in biodiverse and carbon-rich ecosystems like the peatlands of Indonesia and the Amazon rainforest. They say that conversion of these forests for oil palm and soybeans is threatening endangered species and worsening global warming. Further, they warn, demand for such biomass energy products is driving up prices for food crops.
(4/4/2007) As traditionally practiced in southeast Asia, oil palm cultivation is responsible for widespread deforestation that reduces biodiversity, degrades important ecological services, worsens climate change, and traps workers in inequitable conditions sometimes analogous to slavery. This doesn't have to be the case. Following examples set forth by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and firms like Golden Hope Plantations Berhad, a Malaysian palm oil producer, oil palm can be cultivated in a manner that helps mitigate climate change, preserves biodiversity, and brings economic opportunities to desperately poor rural populations.
(4/3/2007) The Associated Press (AP) recently quoted Marcel Silvius, a climate expert at Wetlands International in the Netherlands, as saying palm oil is a failure as a biofuel. This would be a misleading statement and one that doesn't help efforts to devise a workable solution to the multiplicity of issues surrounding the use of palm oil.
Biofuels could decimate environment, stymie developing countries, says report
(1/25/2007) In his State of the Union Address Tuesday night, U.S. President George W. Bush highlighted ethanol fuel production as a means to improve domestic security by reducing dependence on foreign oil while at the same time helping to fight global warming. His call echoes a broader shift in sentiment among business and political leaders who believe that biofuels -- liquid fuels produced 'energy crops' including sugarcane, corn, soybeans, oil palms -- are a key future liquid energy source. In fact, next week, biofuels are likely to take a prominent position at the European Union's 'Sustainable Energy Week' in Brussels when 650 delegates will listen to speeches by the likes of Al Gore and UK foreign minister Margaret Beckett. With all the enthusiasm it may seem that biofuels are the end-all solution. A new report argues that this is not the case. In its briefing, 'International trade in biofuels: Good for development? And good for environment?' the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) cautions policymakers not to get caught up in all the hype. IIED warns that serious concerns still remain when it comes to the widespread adoption of these renewable energy sources.
High oil prices fuel bioenergy push
(5/9/2006) High oil prices and growing concerns over climate change are driving investment and innovation in the biofuels sector as countries and industry increasingly look towards renewable bioenergy to replace fossil fuels. Bill Gates, the world's richest man, has recently invested $84 million in an American ethanol company while global energy gluttons ranging from the United States to China are setting long-term targets for the switch to such fuels which potentially offer a secure domestic source of renewable energy and fewer environmental headaches. Biofuels are fuels that are derived from biomass, including recently living organisms like plants or their metabolic byproducts like cow manure. Unlike fossil fuels -- like coal, petroleum, and natural gas, which are finite resources -- biofuels are a renewable source of energy that can be replenished on an ongoing basis. In general, biofuels are biodegradable and, when burned, have fewer emissions than traditional hydrocarbon-based fuels. Typically, biofuels are blended with traditional petroleum-based fuels, though it is possible to run existing diesel, engines purely on biodiesel, something which holds a great deal of promise as an alternative energy source to replace fossil fuels. Further, because biofuels are generally derived from plants which absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, biofuel production offers the potential to help offset carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate climate change.
Why is palm oil replacing tropical rainforests?
(4/25/2006) In a word, economics, though deeper analysis of a proposal in Indonesia suggests that oil palm development might be a cover for something more lucrative: logging. Recently much has been made about the conversion of Asia's biodiverse rainforests for oil-palm cultivation. Environmental organizations have warned that by eating foods that use palm oil as an ingredient, Western consumers are directly fueling the destruction of orangutan habitat and sensitive ecosystems. So, why is it that oil-palm plantations now cover millions of hectares across Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand? Why has oil palm become the world's number one fruit crop, trouncing its nearest competitor, the humble banana? The answer lies in the crop's unparalleled productivity. Simply put, oil palm is the most productive oil seed in the world. A single hectare of oil palm may yield 5,000 kilograms of crude oil, or nearly 6,000 liters of crude.