October 16, 2009

Biofuel Development Requires Sophisticated Approach: UN

Governments should adopt a more sophisticated approach to developing biofuels, and should incorporate them into wider strategies for energy, climate, land-use, water and agricultural if their deployment is to be of maximum benefit to society, said the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) in a report issued Friday.

The report, entitled "Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Assessing Biofuels", is the first by UNEP's International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, and is based on a detailed analysis of published research up to mid-2009 and input from a number of independent experts.   

The report says some first generation biofuels, such as ethanol from sugarcane, can produce positive results in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.  Citing Brazil's biofuel production as an example, the UN body said emissions could be reduced by "70 percent to well over 100 percent when biofuels are substituted for petrol."

However, the way in which biofuels are produced matters greatly in determining whether they lead to more or less greenhouse gas emissions.   For instance, some biofuels, such as those from oil palms grown in deforested tropical peatlands, can actually increase emissions as much as 2,000 percent compared with fossil fuels as a result of carbon releases from the soils and land.

But a positive contribution to greenhouse gas emissions can occur if the palm oil or soya beans are grown instead on abandoned or degraded land.

"Biofuels are neither a panacea nor a pariah but like all technologies they represent both opportunities and challenges," said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP's Executive Director.

The new report aims to assist governments and industry in making sustainable choices in a sector that has become deeply divided in recent years, often triggering highly polarized opinions.

"A more sophisticated debate is urgently needed which is what this first report by the Panel is intended to provide. On one level, it is a debate about which energy crops to grow and where and also about the way different countries and biofuel companies promote and manage the production and conversion of plant materials for energy purposes-some clearly are climate friendly while others are highly questionable," said Mr. Steiner.

"However, it is also 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 over nine billion by 2050," he said.

The ability of biofuels to reduce emissions depends upon whether they are based on crops or production residues and waste -- the latter being more environmentally friendly.

Brazil's sugarcane-to-ethanol production, for example, is considered good because it uses cane waste, called bagasse, to power the processing and also generates electricity for the national grid.

Meanwhile, palm oil biodiesel can reduce emissions when compared to fossil fuels by 80 percent.  But if it is grown on land from cleared tropical forests, emissions can actually increase 800 percent or more.

Using current technology, as much as one-third of world's arable land would be needed to produce 10 percent of the world's transport fuels, the report said. 

Critics of biofuel production argue that it consumes large chunks of arable land that would be better used to feed the world's population.

The UNEP report called for a "reconsideration of current biofuel mandates, targets and quota in order to limit the demand to levels that can be sustainably supplied."

"The report makes it clear that biofuels have a future role, but also underlines that there may be other options for combating climate change, improving rural livelihoods and achieving sustainable development that may, or may not involve turning ever more crops and crop wastes into liquid fuels," Dr. Steiner said.

The full UNEP report can be viewed at