A far more sophisticated approach needs to be taken when developing biofuels as an environmentally-friendly energy option according to a recent report issued by the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.
Governments should fit biofuels into an overall energy, climate, land-use, water and agricultural strategy if their deployment is to benefit society, the economy and the environment as a whole.
As currently practiced in a country such as Brazil, it can lead to emissions reductions of between 70 percent and well over 100 percent when substituted for petrol.
However, the way in which biofuels are produced matters in determining whether they are leading to more or less greenhouse gas emissions. Conditions under which production of biofuels does lead to higher emissions have been identified in the report.
The production and use of biodiesel from palm oil on deforested peat lands in the tropics is cited. It can lead to significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions-up to 2,000 percent or more when compared with fossil fuels.
This is mainly as a result of carbon releases from the soils and land; however, a positive contribution to greenhouse gas emissions can arise if the palm oil or soya beans are instead grown on abandoned or degraded land. Some first generation biofuels such as ethanol from sugar cane can have positive impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
“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 Executive Director of UNEP.
“Therefore, 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,” added Mr. Steiner. “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.”
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, Mr. Steiner explained.
The report by the Resource Panel for example 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”.
• Land, including abandoned land can be used for energy crops but could equally be used for re-afforestation or solar power which the report argues may be more efficient for turning sunlight into energy.
• Meanwhile, in transport, modal shifts and higher fuel efficiency standards and the development of alternative technologies such as plug-in vehicles could dramatically reduce emissions in their own right.
In the United States, the Energy Independence Act requires fuel efficiency improvements of 40 percent for cars and light trucks by 2020. Similarly, Japan is set to adopt a 20 percent fuel efficiency improvement to be implemented by 2015 with car makers there claiming that 80 percent of vehicles already meet the proposed standard.
The report points out that in the United States the Energy Independence Act requires fuel efficiency improvements of 40 percent for cars and light trucks by 2020. Similarly, Japan is set to adopt a 20 percent fuel efficiency improvement to be implemented by 2015 with car makers there claiming that 80 percent of vehicles already meet the proposed standard.
Professor Weizsäcker, an author if the report, said, “There are also wider life cycle issues that need to be factored into government policy decisions and in some cases these require more urgent research. Growing energy crops can involve increased use of fertilizers which in turn have implications for water quality. Fertilizer use also increases emissions of N20 (nitrous oxide) which is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right.”
Key Findings From The Report
World ethanol production for transport fuels tripled between 2000 and 2007 from 17 billion liters (4.5 million gallons) to more than 52 billion liters (13.7 million gallons).
Biodiesel expanded 11 fold from less than a billion liters to 11 billion liters.
Biofuels provide 1.8 percent of transport fuels.
Investment in biofuels production capacity exceeded US$4 billion worldwide in 2007.
International trade has been small, about three billion liters in 2006/07, but is expected to grow rapidly in countries like Brazil where in 2008 five billion liters were exported.
Land-Use Changes and Related Impacts of First Generation Biofuels
Global cropland will expand only to feed a growing world population with an increasing demand for more protein rich food from animals. Any additional demand for non-food biomass crops will add to the pressure of converting natural land.
Global land use for biofuel crops was about two percent of global cropland in 2008, or about 89 million acres (36 million hectares).
First generation biofuels include, for example, ethanol from sugar cane or corn or biodiesel from rapeseed, soya or palm oil.
Globally about 118 to 508 million hectares (292 million to 1.2 billion acres) of cropland would be needed to meet 10 percent of global transport fuel demand by 2030 if first generation biofuels are used.
On the one hand, these biofuels could potentially substitute 0.17 to 0.76 billion tons of fossil CO2. On the other hand, the associated land-use change would lead to additional 0.75 to 1.83 billion tons of CO2.
Altogether, there could be rather more greenhouse gas emissions for the coming decades due to energy crop-based biofuels.
Land-use change for biofuel crops cannot be avoided by product standards and certification alone, as long as global demand for biomass is growing. Certified production would drive non-certified production, particularly for food, to other areas.
Climate Pros and Cons of Different Biofuels
Whether a biofuel is climate-friendly or contributes to climate change depends on numerous factors, basically whether it is based on crops or production residues and waste. The use of the latter is usually beneficial for the environment, requires no additional land and also provides economic benefits. The growing and conversion processes from biomass to fuel determine the environmental performance.
Brazil’s sugar cane-to-ethanol industry is considered to have a positive climate benefit because and in part it uses wastes known as bagasse to power the processing and to also generate electricity for the national grid.
Bioethanol from corn can be less climate-friendly in cases where fossil fuels are used in the process of converting the crop to liquid fuel. Depending on the efficiency of modern mills and other factors, it actually leads to a nearly 60 per cent cut in CO2 emissions when compared with gasoline, or a five percent increase in green house gas emissions.
Palm oil biodiesel can reduce emissions when compared to fossil fuels by 80 percent. But if the palm oil is grown on cropland from cleared tropical forests, greenhouse gas emissions can be up to 800 percent higher.
And if the land use was cleared peat forests the emissions increases over using fossil fuels can rise to 2,000 percent.
Examples of other beneficial biofuels are biomethane from manure, with emissions savings of over 170 percent and second generation ethanol produced from agricultural and forestry wastes- savings in the region of 80 percent to 90 percent over petrol.
Jatropha, an energy crop being recommended in drylands in India and across Africa, can generate greenhouse gas savings if grown on degraded land but if grown on shrubland this can increase emissions through land use change. However, this needs to be balanced with the possibility to satisfy energy needs that are currently satisfied largely with traditional biomass use, which often leads to deforestation – again with an impact on climate change.
Note: The International Panel on Sustainable Resource Management was established by UNEP in 2007. It compromises over 20 eminent scientists and researchers and is headed by Professor von Weizsacker and has a steering committee consisting of representatives from governments, the EC, UNEP and other organizations.
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