UN weighs impact of bioenergy
Comprehensive report offers policy framework for decision makers
8 May 2007, New York/Rome – The fast-growing bioenergy industry offers many opportunities, but also involves a number of trade-offs and risks, the United Nations said today in its most comprehensive review of the likely impact of the emerging bioenergy market.
“The economic, environmental and social impacts of bioenergy development must be assessed carefully before deciding if and how rapidly to develop the industry and what technologies, policies and investment strategies to pursue,” the report warned.
The document, “Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers” was prepared by UN-Energy, a group of all UN agencies programmes and organizations working in the area of energy. It was sponsored by the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Purpose of the study was to help ensure that “the energy needs of people are met and the local and global environment is adequately protected,” said UN-Energy Chair Mats Karlsson of the World Bank. “We hope to use the collective strength of the UN system to affect change”.
The report pointed out the many benefits of bioenergy systems in relation to poverty alleviation, access to energy services, rural development and rural infrastructure. It reviewed the likely impact of bioenergy in terms of food security, climate change, biodiversity and natural resources, employment and trade. It also identified the vital points decision makers need to consider and stressed that, “Unless new policies are enacted to protect threatened lands, secure socially acceptable land use, and steer bioenergy development in a sustainable direction overall, the environmental and social damage could in some cases outweigh the benefits”.
In an apparent reference to the use of some grains as a biofuel feedstock, UN-Energy noted, “In general, crops that require high fossil energy inputs (such as conventional fertilizer) and valuable (farm) land, and that have relatively low energy yields per hectare, should be avoided.”
Sustainable bioenergy use
Moreover, even “sustainably"-produced energy crops could have negative impacts if they replaced primary forests, “resulting in large releases of carbon from the soil and forest biomass that negate any benefits from biofuels for decades,” the report said.
To minimize greenhouse gas emissions associated with bioenergy production, policy makers needed to safeguard virgin grasslands, primary forests and other lands with high nature value, UN-Energy recommended. Governments should also encourage the use of sustainable bioenergy production and management practices. An international certification scheme, including greenhouse gas verification, should be set up to ensure that bioenergy products, and biofuels in particular, meet environmental standards all the way from fields to fuel tanks.
On food security, the report said that the availability of adequate food supplies could be threatened by biofuel production as land, water and other resources were diverted from food production. Similarly, food access could be compromised by higher basic food prices resulting from increased bioenergy feedstock demand, thus driving the poor and food insecure into even greater poverty.
On the other hand the market for biofuel feedstock offers new and rapidly growing opportunity for agricultural producers,” the report said. “Modern bioenergy could make energy services more widely and cheaply available in remote rural areas, supporting productivity growth in agriculture and other sectors with positive implications for food availability and access”.
Modern bioenergy can also help to meet the needs of the 1.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to electricity in their homes, and the 2.4 billion who rely on straw, dung and other traditional biomass fuels to meet their energy requirements.
Overall, in taking decisions, policy makers “should ensure that food security considerations are given priority,” the report stressed.
Bringing down trade barriers
The document was critical of tariff barriers currently erected against ethanol imports by some countries.
Impeding imports of more efficiently produced biofuels from abroad while simultaneously mandating the blending of biofuel with fossil fuels at home could divert more land than necessary from food production, it said.
As to the implications for agriculture in general, the report noted that, “At their best, liquid biofuel products can enrich farmers by helping to add value to their products. But at their worst, biofuel programmes can result in concentration of ownership that could drive the world’s poorest farmers off their land and into deeper poverty.”
Most likely, “the biofuel economy of the future will be characterized by a mix of production types, some dominated by large, capital-intensive businesses, some marked by farmer co-ops that compete with large companies ... and some where liquid biofuels are produced on a smaller scale and used locally.
“Regardless of the scale of production, however, one thing is clear: the more involved farmers are in the production, processing and use of biofuels, the more likely they are to share in the benefits.”
On health, UN-Energy said that modern bioenergy held out the promise of dramatically reducing the death toll caused in developing countries by the “kitchen killer” – smoke inhalation from cooking with fuelwood or traditional biomass, which is responsible for more fatalities each year than malaria. Women could also be freed from the drudgery of collecting firewood, thus providing them with greater opportunities for education and employment.
Media Relations, FAO
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