UN report warns on impact of biofuels

Posted: 10 May 2007

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, according to a new UN report. But there could be serious consequences if forests are razed for plantations, if food prices rise and if communities are excluded from ownership, the report warns.

Presenting the new report by UN-Energy, Sustainable energy: A framework for decision-makers, Alexander Muller, Assistant Director-General for the Sustainable Development Department of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stressed that, while bioenergy presented great opportunity, especially for the world's rural poor, a political framework was needed to ensure that they benefited from bioenergy.

Gasifier
Gasifier
Biomass gasifier which uses residue from nearby sugarcane mill in Hawaii, with sugarcane fields in the background. Photo credit © NREL/Warren Gretz
Regarding the issue of food security, UN-Energy's Vice-Chairman, Gustavo Best, noted 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. The dangers, however, needed to be seen in light of the enormous benefits presented by bioenergy.

Modern bioenergy could make energy services more widely and cheaply available in remote rural areas, he pointed out, supporting productivity growth in agriculture or other sectors with positive implications for food availability and access. To some extent, the report showed how food security risks were the mirror image of opportunities

Heat and power

The report stresses that biofuels are more effective when used for heat and power rather than in transport.

"Current research concludes that using biomass for combined heat and power, rather than for transport fuels or other uses, is the best option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade - and also one of the cheapest," it says.

On the environmental side, it notes that demand for biofuels has accelerated the clearing of primary forest for palm plantations, particularly in southeast Asia. This destruction of ecosystems which remove carbon from the atmosphere can lead to a net increase in emissions.

The report warns too of the potential impacts of large-scale biofuel plantations: "Use of large-scale mono-cropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion and nutrient leaching."

Biofuel production can also threaten water supplies. The expanding world population and the trend towards consumption of meat and dairy produce as incomes rise are already putting pressure on freshwater supplies, which increased growing of biofuel crops could exacerbate.

Pump dispensing fuel that is 85 percent ethanol. 1999. Photo: Tim Gerlach/NREL
Pump dispensing fuel that is 85 percent ethanol. 1999. Photo: Tim Gerlach/NREL
Pump dispensing fuel which is 85 per cent ethanol.© Tim Gerlach/NREL
Biofuels account for the fastest-growing market for agricultural products around the world and was a billion-dollar business, says the report. Increasing oil prices in recent years had had devastating effects on many poor countries, some of which spent six times as much on fuel as they did on health. For these countries, bioenergy could create great opportunity. The report is intended to provide 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.

UN-Energy is a cross-agency body established to help ensure coherence in the United Nations system's multi-disciplinary response to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 2002) and to ensure the effective engagement of non-United Nations stakeholders in implementing the Summit's energy-related decisions.

Links:UN-Energy (with link to pdf of full report)