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    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.


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Friday, June 16, 2006

Biofuels: to certificate or not to certificate, that is the question.

For a long time we've been stressing the fact that a global bioenergy and biofuels trade will come into existence as fossil fuels keep getting more expensive. The first signs that this is already happening are there - with Japan signing a bilateral deal with Brazil [earlier post] which will see it importing vast amounts of ethanol; European utilities importing wood chips, and agro-residues such as coconut shells, palm oil kernels, or cocoa hulls for co-firing with coal, from all over the world; and North American companies investing in the tropics to produce feedstock there for the home market [earlier post]. Several countries in the tropics are planning vast biofuel export schemes targetted at the North American, European and East Asian markets.

One of the questions that is being hotly debated in this context (especially in Europe) is that of certification. Should there be a set of sustainability criteria to screen whether imported biofuels have been produced in an environmentally friendly way? And should certification be mandatory or voluntary? What is understood by the messy concept of "sustainability"? And isn't such a certification scheme just another tool created by the wealthy West to block the poor South's access to their market yet again? Does the debate about eco-certification and environmental sustainability mask the debate about social justice, which is just as (or even more) important? Or are the two concepts not mutually exclusive?

Let's have a look at these crucial questions. The BioPact is first and foremost a project about social justice: poor farmers in the South have the chance of a life-time to produce biofuels for export, and to lift themselves out of poverty by doing so. We want to support them in using this opportunity. Would certification in any way jeopardize this project? Biofuels should not merely be looked at in the context of environmental terms (CO2 balance, fighting climate change, etc...), they also play a role in socio-economic terms - reducing poverty, chances for development, access to energy, redistribution of wealth, the shift from a petro-militarist world towards a bioenergy driven world. But we will discuss this more in depht later.

So what are the environmental organisations demanding? Here's a short overview of their sustainability criteria, to which we respond:



Let's first have a look at certain of the demands made by environmental organisations. What do they consider to be "sustainability criteria" that should be included in certificates? And let us respond to those demands. At the end of the discussion we will argue that a far more holistic approach to the concept of "sustainability" must be taken, for it to make any sense. The concept must include things such as social justice and references to historical CO2 debt and historical deforestation debt.

1. Groups like Novib, Milieudefensie and Both Ends want to include a criterium saying that exports may not compete with food supplies in the areas of origin.

We think this is an unsound and pretentious argument (who are they to tell other nations what to do here?)
First, the world is complex and driven by trade; autarky is lethal for an economy. Many countries who could produce all the food they need using their own resource base , prefer to import it because they have focused their economies on other sectors than food production. This is called trade. In many cases in the developing world, it will make more sense to produce biofuels and sell them on the international market where they compete with oil, than to grow food. Since oil prices are very high and will keep rising, they promise to bring in substantial profits. With these profits, you import food from places that produce it most efficiently.

Energy crops yield much more biomass in the tropics than in more northern latitudes. No oil palm grows in Europe. But grains do grow well there. Why would it be wrong for , say an African country, to decide to plant more oil palm to export it to Europe and to import food grains from that continent in return? This is how trade works: a country that's good at producing commodity A but not commodity B, sells it to a country that's only good at producing B but not A, and vice-versa.
In many cases it is even imperative from an environmental point of view too, to cultivate energy crops there where they yield most and require the least amount of land. That is: in the tropics.

So we think each country should decide for itself which is the best proposition: to export biofuels and to import food with the profits made; or to produce both food and fuel locally, or some other matrix.

More broadly speaking: the entire food versus fuel argument is often wrongly understood by environmental organisations. As we have said many times, it is not food versus fuel, on the contrary, bioenergy production catalyses better food production and enhances food security. See our previous discussion about this issue.
But, to conclude, even in the case where it is a matter of food versus fuel, it's still up to the country of origin to decide which of the two it wants to invest in more (it will make its own calculus about trade and national economics.)

On to some environmental criteria:

2. The European Ethanol Board (a lobby group) wants to ensure that the CO2 benefit should be at least 50% for the biofuel involved, with a perspective of development towards 80%, for the complete production and supply chain (seed to tank). (See their proposed list of criteria, here, check the Annex [*.pdf]).

Studies by the IEA Bioenergy Task 40, indicate that the CO2 balance of biofuels produced in the tropics and exported to Europe, is negative, that is, they do not emit more CO2 than they displace when they are used by the end consumer. Whether the balance nears 50% depends from case to case. For such a "seed-to-wheel" study (or "seed-to-biomass-power-station"): International bioenergy transport costs and energy balance.

But one thing is certain, many locally produced biofuels in North America and Europe, based on low yielding energy crops such as corn or rapeseed, do not even attain this target. Some scientists even show negative CO2 balances for these crops.

Tropical feedstocks, which yield many times more per hectare, probably have a positive balance, even after they've been exported.


3. There should also be no conflict with the local population over land rights.

This has nothing to do with biofuels as such, but with social justice in general. This criterion should not be limited to biofuels, instead it should be expanded to include all agricultural products produced, anywhere.

Let's not forget that it is often North American and European multinationals who lease land, or acquire it from governments in the tropics, and who induce land right disputes by allowing land prices to go up.
These same multinationals have access to huge capital streams, and can use the leverage this brings to compete smallholders out of the market, thereby sucking up their land.

It is well known that the biggest financiers of mega-palm oil estates, are European and American banks.

BioPact is the first to address this problem, and we urge NGOs to tackle it with us.


4. Biomass should be grown with minimum fertilizers and pesticides input as such inputs have a serious impact on the climatic effect as well as on the wider environment.

This is too general a statement, in many cases scientifically incorrect, and very dangerous from an environmental point of view. In the case of the developing world, where extensive forms of agriculture are very common (i.e. slash and burn), it would be good to introduce intensivation techniques (i.e. using fertilizers and pesticides). Because in the end, intensive agriculture destroys much less environment than the primitive extensive practises that are common today.

The recent Africa Fertilizer Summit, about which we reported earlier, makes the case very clear: farmers in the developing world who don't have access to fertilizers use far more land, clear far more forest, and are kept in poverty because of the low yields of their crops (and lower profits), which forces them to convert even more land. The cycle is lethal for the environment. Fertilizers and pesticides are an absolute must to protect the environment.

It is absolutely crucial to reach (energy) farmers in the developing world and introduce new intensive techniques (using [bio]-fertilizers and [bio]pesticides), good management, meteorological information, and working marketing tools and infrastructure. The bioenergy opportunity will bring these instruments for the first time. The effect is less environmentally destructive farming in the developing world.

Added to this is the well-known problem of poverty-related agricultural traps: a poor farmer has no money to buy fertilizer and pesticides, so he uses extensive agriculture which destroys forests and ecosystems. The biofuels opportunity will increase farming incomes, which breaks this trap.


In short, introducing such a general criterion would be very dangerous and could have destructive effects on the environment, because in many cases using fertilizer on a comparatively smaller piece of intensively worked land, is much less damaging than using a more vast expanse of land and no fertilizers.


5. Full Life Cycle Assessments must be carried out to determine whether environmental impacts are small compared to the benefits.

We agree with this argument, but only on the condition that a holistic approach is taken. Environmental groups are often extremely reductionistic when it comes to definitions of sustainability and Life Cycle Assessments. They tend to limit themselves to demanding Environmental Impact Assessments, whereas we want to broaden the discussion and include Social Impact Assessments and even 'Geopolitical Impact Assessments'.

Social justice is crucial to us. Biofuels offer an opportunity for poor farmers in the developing world to lift themselves out of poverty, if they were allowed to export to Europe and North America.
We are not advocating environmental destruction at all, but if biofuels production requires alteration of the environment, Europe and North America have no credibility when it comes to criticizing these countries. Just look at Europe/North America's own historic CO2 and deforestation debt. They have logged all their forests ages ago, which allowed them to develop. Denying third world countries to do the same would be unfair. If the West wants to keep the green moral high ground, then it should look at its own past. It should then use the money it made ages ago by its deforestation-driven economic development, and hand it over to the third world.
Is the West willing to do this? We sure hope so. [See our previous discussion on Europe and America's historic CO2 and deforestation debt].

6. No natural ecosystems should be converted as a result of the production of biomass, both directly and indirectly, as the immediate release of carbon into the atmosphere that this causes will likely outweigh any potential carbon savings.

This is way too general a demand and unreasonable, from a scientific point of view. Moreover, it is a strange kind of wording since all ecosystems are "natural", even those that have been altered many times by man. There is no perpetual, unchanging, static balance in nature. Even many kinds of forest that now look "pristine" have a long history of human induced alteration.

But we understand what they are trying to say. Let's defuse this point and show why it is unreasonable. Take the example of vast monocultural natural ecosystems, such as savannahs in the tropics. Many of those savannahs (which often count only a few or even a single grass species) are pretty bad at storing carbon, and they often get destroyed by huge natural fires. Replacing them by sugar cane or by a monoculture of shrubs such as jatropha would mean "altering" them, but it would also mean storing more carbon into them. The latter plantations do not suffer under natural fires and are far less CO2 emitting than natural savannahs. This is just one example, there are others: (some) science suggests that in many cases even the much criticized oil palm stores more carbon than "pristine" forests.

Moreover, man is an ingenious being and often he can do things better than nature. Nature is not always efficient. For example, he can create carbon-negative monocultures, by converting part of the biomass he plants, into charcoal, and returning it to the soil, storing it and enhancing the fertility of the soil. Nature doesn't do this by itself, or only very inefficiently and over very long periods of time.

Finally, criterion 5 would imply that no energy farming at all would be allowed, because all agriculture involves converting ecosystems from one kind into another kind, and changing the CO2 balance (either positively or negatively). We can't deny farmers in the developing world the right to engage in agriculture, can we?


7. Forest and agricultural ecosystems from which waste is used should not be depleted from their nutrients.

Aside from the fact that nutrient balance studies are very complex, we agree with this criterion.


8. The production should not contribute to soil degradation and contamination or lead to a decline of the organic matter content of soils.

This will be no problem, since the soils of many natural ecosystems in the tropics have very low soil organic matter. Only man's agricultural interventions and soil management can increase nature's way of handling organic matter in those soils.


9. The biomass production should not have negative effects on the water reservoirs, especially in water scarce regions and respect existing legislation.

Most tropical agriculture is rainfed, and uses abundant precipitation, so this is very seldom a question. But again, this is a way too general statement, and the science is ambiguous here. For example, many environmentalists have criticized eucalyptus plantations in Brazil, saying these deplete water resources. As we have reported earlier, science says the contrary, because it takes a much more holistic look. In this case: irrigated eucalyptus uses less water than inefficient natural stands of biomass; moreover, investments in irrigation infrastructure often bring investments in local water management and tech, which benefits the wider communities that live near the plantation. The unprofessional water use by these poor communities is in fact much more damaging than the expert management that comes with eucalyptus plantations.

This is just one example. NGOs should be more nuanced, because introducing such general and absolutist demands is unsound. In the above case, we would correct it thus: the biomass produced should not have damaging effects on the water reservoirs that exceed the damages done to those reservoirs by local communities.


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Most of the criteria mentioned above, are partly following a study from the Oekoinstitut, February 2005: “Criteria for assessing environmental, social and economic aspects of biofuels in developing countries”.

More demands and discussions about certification can be found here:

WWF asks for mandatory eco-certification for biofuels - 8 february 2006.
WWF Communication on Biofuels, february 2006 [*.pdf].

IEA Bioenergy Task 40, Biotrade: Steps towards the development of a certification system for sustainable Bio-energy trade.
And, from the same organisation:Certification Systems.


In the future, we will revise this important subject more in depth and put forward some of our own criteria, which should lead to a debate about social justice and if necessary "social certification". Limiting the debate about biofuels to environmental issues is too reductionistic, we think.

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