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Biofuels Can Be Climate Friends or Climate Enemies, UNEP Reports
NAIROBI, Kenya, October 20, 2009 (ENS) - Burning some biofuels can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, but not all biofuel use leads to cuts in greenhouse gases, finds the first report of a new panel hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP. The processes of growing and conversion of biomass to fuel determine each biofuel's environmental performance, the report concludes.

This first report by UNEP's International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management advises that governments should fit biofuels into an overall energy, climate, land-use, water and agricultural strategy if their use is to benefit society, the economy and the environment as a whole.

Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, which hosts the Resource Panel, says, "Biofuels are neither a panacea nor a pariah but like all technologies they represent both opportunities and challenges. Therefore a more sophisticated debate is urgently needed, which is what this first report by the panel is intended to provide," he said.

"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," Steiner says.

The Piricicaba ethanol plant in Brazil uses sugar cane to produce produce sugar, ethanol and electricity. (Photo courtesy UK Dept. of Energy and Climate Change)

The report, "Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Assessing Biofuels," is based on a detailed review of published research up to mid-2009 as well as the input of independent experts worldwide. It is presented to help governments and industry make sustainable choices in an area where sharply polarized views abound.

Established by UNEP in 2007, the panel includes 20 eminent scientists and researchers headed by German scientist and politician Professor Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker. It has a steering committee including representatives from governments, the European Community and UNEP.

Whether a biofuel is climate friendly or contributes to climate change depends on whether it is based on crops or production residues and waste, the report concludes. The use of residues and waste is usually beneficial for the environment, requires no additional land and also provides economic benefits.

Brazil's sugar cane-to-ethanol industry is considered to have a positive climate benefit because 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 can lead to a nearly 60 percent cut in emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, CO2, when compared with gasoline, or to a five percent increase in 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.

Palm oil plantation in Cigudeg, Bogor, Indonesia (Photo by Achmad Rabin Taim)

And if the land used to grow the palms was cleared peat forests, the emissions increase 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, which contribute 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.

Professor Weizsacker 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."

"Using abandoned or so called waste land for biofuels might be a sensible option, but it may also have implications for biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions might be better cut by forestry schemes," he said.

Today, biofuels provide 1.8 percent of transport fuels, the report calculates.

The biofuels market is small but growing quickly. World ethanol production for transport fuels tripled between 2000 and 2007 from 17 billion liters to more than 52 billion liters.

Sugar cane fields burned before harvest near White Castle, Louisiana (Photo by Shanna Riley)

Biodiesel expanded 11-fold from less than a billion liters to 11 billion liters.

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.

"If the world's cropland is used to feed a growing population and one increasingly consuming meat, any additional demand for energy crops will almost inevitably increase pressure on grasslands, savannahs and forests," said report co-author Dr. Stefan Bringezu of the panel's Biofuels Working Group. "This will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions as well as rising losses of biodiversity."

"Using wastes and residues represents one safer and more sustainable path out of this dilemma," Bringezu said.

"The report makes it clear that biofuels have a future role," Steiner said, "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," he explained.

"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.

Timo Makela of the European Commission says the biofuels report will be useful as the EU moves to protect the global climate. "It is part of our long-term strategy on sustainable management of natural resources in providing authoritative and independent scientific advice to underpin policies and with a global perspective," he said.

Makela said the report will help the European Commission design and implement targets and sustainability criteria for the use of biofuels.

Click here to read the report, "Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Assessing Biofuels."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.



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