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    The maximum extent of Arctic sea ice in winter 2007 was the second lowest on satellite record, narrowly missing the 2006 record, according to a team of researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder. EurekAlert - April 4, 2007.

    The Société de Transport de Montréal is to buy 8 biodiesel-electric hybrid buses that will use 20% less fuel and cut 330 tons of GHG emissions per annum. Courrier Ahuntsic - April 3, 2007.

    Thailand mandates B2, a mixture of 2% biodiesel and 98% diesel. According to Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand, the mandate comes into effect by April next year. Bangkok Post - April 3, 2007.

    In what is described as a defeat for the Bush administration, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled [*.pdf] today that environmental officials have the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming. By a 5-4 vote, the nation's highest court told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its refusal to regulate carbon dioxide and other emissions from new cars and trucks that contribute to climate change. Reuters - April 2, 2007.

    Goldman Sachs estimates that, in the absence of current trade barriers, Latin America could supply all the ethanol required in the US and Europe at a cost of $45 per barrel – just over half the cost of US-made ethanol. EuroToday - April 2, 2007.

    The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative signed a long-term purchase power agreement last week with Green Energy Team, LLC. The 20-year agreement enables KIUC to purchase power from Green Energy's proposed 6.4 megawatt biomass-to-energy facility, which will use agricultural waste to generate power. Honolulu Advertiser - April 2, 2007.

    The market trend to heavier, more powerful hybrids is eroding the fuel consumption advantage of hybrid technology, according to a study done by researchers at the University of British Columbia. GreenCarCongress - March 30, 2007.

    Hungarian privately-owned bio-ethanol project firm Mabio is planning to complete an €80-85 million ethanol plant in Southeast Hungary's Csabacsud by end-2008. Onet/Interfax - March 29, 2007.

    Energy and engineering group Abengoa announces it has applied for planning permission to build a bioethanol plant in north-east England with a capacity of about 400,000 tonnes a year. Reuters - March 29, 2007.

    The second European Summer School on Renewable Motor Fuels will be held in Warsaw, Poland, from 29 to 31 August 2007. The goal of the event is to disseminate the knowledge generated within the EU-funded RENEW (Renewable Fuels for Advanced Powertrains) project and present it to the European academic audience and stakeholders. Topics on the agenda include generation of synthetic gas from biomass and gas cleaning; transport fuel synthesis from synthetic gas; biofuel use in different motors; biomass potentials, supply and logistics, and technology, cost and life-cycle assessment of BtL pathways. Cordis News - March 27, 2007.

    Green Swedes want even more renewables, according to a study from Gothenburg University. Support for hydroelectricity and biofuels has increased, whereas three-quarters of people want Sweden to concentrate more on wind and solar too. Swedes still back the nuclear phase-out plans. The country is Europe's largest ethanol user. It imports 75% of the biofuel from Brazil. Sveriges Radio International - March 27, 2007.

    Fiat will launch its Brazilian-built flex-fuel Uno in South Africa later this year. The flex-fuel Uno, which can run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of the two fuels, was displayed at the Durban Auto Show, and is set to become popular as South Africa enters the ethanol era. Automotive World - March 27, 2007.

    Siemens Power Generation (PG) is to supply two steam turbine gensets to a biomass-fired plant in Três Lagoas, 600 kilometers northwest of São Paulo. The order, valued at €22 million, was placed by the Brazilian company Pöyry Empreendimentos, part of VCP (Votorantim Celulose e Papel), one of the biggest cellulose producers in the Americas. PRDomain - March 25, 2007.

    Asia’s demand for oil will nearly double over the next 25 years and will account for 85% of the increased demand in 2007, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) officials forecast yesterday at a Bangkok-hosted energy conference. Daily Times - March 24, 2007.

    Portugal's government expects total investment in biomass energy will reach €500 million in 2012, when its target of 250MW capacity is reached. By that date, biomass will reduce 700,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. By 2010, biomass will represent 5% of the country's energy production. Forbes - March 22, 2007.

    The Scottish Executive has announced a biomass action plan for Scotland, through which dozens of green energy projects across the region are set to benefit from an additional £3 million of funding. The plan includes greater use of the forestry and agriculture sectors, together with grant support to encourage greater use of biomass products. Energy Business Review Online - March 21, 2007.

    The U.S. Dep't of Agriculture's Forest Service has selected 26 small businesses and community groups to receive US$6.2 million in grants from for the development of innovative uses for woody biomass. American Agriculturalist - March 21, 2007.

    Three universities, a government laboratory, and several companies are joining forces in Colorado to create what organizers hope will be a major player in the emerging field of converting biomass into fuels and other products. The Colorado Center for Biorefining & Biofuels, or C2B2, combines the biofuels and biorefining expertise of the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the Colorado School of Mines, and the Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Founding corporate members include Dow Chemical, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell. C&EN - March 20, 2007.

    The city of Rome has announced plans to run its public bus fleet on a fuel mix of 20 per cent biodiesel. The city council has signed an accord that would see its 2800 buses switch to the blended fuel in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. A trial of 200 buses, if successful, would see the entire fleet running on the biofuel mix by the end of 2008. Estimates put the annual emission savings at 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. CarbonPositive - March 19, 2007.

    CODON (Dutch Biotech Study Association) organises a symposium on the 'Biobased Economy' in Wageningen, Netherlands, home of one of Europe's largest agricultural universities. In a biobased economy, chemistry companies and other non-food enterprises primarily use renewable materials and biomass as their resources, instead of petroleum. The Netherlands has the ambition to have 30% of all used materials biobased, by 2030. FoodHolland - March 19, 2007.

    Energy giants BP and China National Petroleum Corp, the PRC's biggest oil producer, are among the companies that are in talks with Guangxi Xintiande Energy Co about buying a stake in the southern China ethanol producer to expand output. Xintiande Energy currently produces ethanol from cassava. ChinaDaily - March 16, 2007.

    Researchers at eTEC Business Development Ltd., a biofuels research company based in Vienna, Austria, have devised mobile facilities that successfully convert the biodiesel by-product glycerin into electricity. The facilities, according to researchers, will provide substantial economic growth for biodiesel plants while turning glycerin into productive renewable energy. Biodiesel Magazine - March 16, 2007.

    Ethanol Africa, which plans to build eight biofuel plants in the maize belt, has secured funding of €83/US$110 million (825 million Rand) for the first facility in Bothaville, its principal shareholder announced. Business Report - March 16, 2007.

    A joint venture between Energias de Portugal SGPS and Altri SGPS will be awarded licences to build five 100 MW biomass power stations in Portugal's eastern Castelo Branco region. EDP's EDP Bioelectrica unit and Altri's Celulose de Caima plan to fuel the power stations with forestry waste material. Total investment on the programme is projected at €250/US$333 million with 800 jobs being created. Forbes - March 16, 2007.

    Indian bioprocess engineering firm Praj wins €11/US$14.5 million contract for the construction of the wheat and beet based bio-ethanol plant for Biowanze SA in Belgium, a subsidiary of CropEnergies AG (a Sudzucker Group Company). The plant has an ethanol production capacity of 300,000 tons per year. IndiaPRWire - March 15, 2007.

    Shimadzu Scientific Instruments announced the availability of its new white paper, “Overview of Biofuels and the Analytical Processes Used in their Manufacture.” The paper is available for free download at the company’s website. The paper offers an overview of the rapidly expanding global biofuel market with specific focus on ethanol and biodiesel used in auto transportation. It provides context for these products within the fuel market and explains raw materials and manufacturing. Most important, the paper describes the analytical processes and equipment used for QA testing of raw materials, in-process materials, and end products. BusinessWire - March 15, 2007.

    Côte d'Ivoire's agriculture minister Amadou Gon has visited the biofuels section of the Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris, one of the largest fairs of its kind. According to his communication office, the minister is looking into drafting a plan for the introduction of biofuels in the West African country. AllAfrica [*French] - March 13, 2007.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A closer look at Social Impact Assessments of large biofuel projects

Our bioenergy future will rely on large-scale energy farming. Many of the projects will be located in the Global South where they are set to have both positive, negative and ambiguous impacts on the environment as well as on the socio-economic fabric of the communities that host them.

Whenever large infrastructure and development interventions are carried out - from the construction of dams and pipelines to mining projects or indeed the establishment of biofuel plantations - it is absolutely critical to assess these potential impacts thoroughly before the project is implemented. Failure to do so may result in unwanted and irreversible consequences that threaten the viability of the project over the long-term.

Traditionally, so-called 'Environmental Impact Assessments' (EIA) are undertaken to this aim. The relationship that is analysed in such studies is one of human interventions versus natural ecosystems. But of course, nature and ecology aren't mere inanimate systems, they are social constructs too, imagined, lived, valued and actively used by people and communities. For this reason, 'Social Impact Assessments' (SIA) are now seen as equally, if not more important than EIAs. After all, even if a large project is predicted to have low environmental impacts, it may still fail because of direct social resistance or because of unintended socio-economic changes and perceptions.

Broadly defined, SIA includes the processes of analysing, monitoring and managing the intended and unintended social and cultural consequences, both positive and negative, of planned interventions (policies, programs, plans, projects) and any social change processes invoked by those interventions. Its primary purpose is to bring about a more sustainable and equitable biophysical and human environment. SIAs form the basis of further investment decisions and public policies.

A substantial academic literature has developed around the techniques and the application of SIA, and it is widely taught and practiced. SIA differs from 'monitoring and evaluating' (M&E), in that it typically takes place before a project is implemented. SIA experts have diverse academic backgrounds but most often they include anthropology, applied sociology, geography, development studies, and planning. Companies, investors and governments alike have come to understand that SIA is a cost-effective method of mitigating risks. For this reason, the analysis has become an integral part of the planning stage of large-scale projects (EIAs are integrated with SIAs into ESIAs).

So what would a SIA look like in the context of bioenergy projects? And what is the breadth of such a study? We have an interesting example written by experts from the United Nations Development Program for Stora Enso, a major Finnish forestry company that has entered the biomass industry, and that wants to establish a large (120,000 ha) Eucalyptus plantation project in Guanxi, southern China. At its peak, the project is expected to affect over 650,000 people or 130,000 households. Obviously, with projects of this scale, an in-depth SIA is no luxury:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

SIA and EIA experts from the UNDP's China office were called on to write a thorough ESIA report that presents a prototypical analysis of the potential impacts. It is the first such study ever carried out in China's plantation sector. Even though Stora Enso's plantation project is aimed at producing wood pulp for the paper industry, the basic analyses are roughly the same for large-scale, plantation-based bioenerrgy projects. The ESIA offers several recommendations that, if implemented, could address and mitigate the challenges that can be expected to occur once the project is implemented.

The ESIA must be situated within the broader context of China's development strategy:
The People's Republic's accelerated growth has raised new challenges such as increasing income gaps among people and environmental degradation. The links between human well-being and threats to the ecosystem are complex. Environmental sustainability is a major concern in China and is itself exacerbated by poverty.
The current fragility of China’s ecosystems may well pose serious challenges to sustaining high levels of growth into the first decades of the 21st century. In response to such challenges, China’s new development policy in 2002 called for building a 'well-off society' ('Xiaokang') in an 'all around way' by 2020. This vision for China’s future is very much in line
with the historic compact of the Millennium Declaration and its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by world leaders at the United Nations in 2000.

In March 2004, the National People’s Congress of China adopted a scientific concept of development around five balances: (1) balancing urban and rural development, (2) balancing development across regions, (3) balancing economic and social development, (4) balancing development of man and nature, and (5) balancing domestic development and opening up to the outside world.

Within this framework, large-scale development projects cannot do without a thorough SIA and EIA analysis. In this piece, we focus on the UNDP's SIA only, because EIAs are more standardized and deal with relatively easily measurable phenomena (such as the analysis of effects on soil, water, biodiversity, pests, and so on). However, in practise, both kinds of analysis are often inseparable (the UNDP's report clearly demonstrates this, as it is divided into three parts: (1) EIA, (2) SIA, and (3) the integration of the two.)

The social assessment used two main methods: (1) an extensive questionnaire-based survey of stakeholders and (2) in-depth interviews of stakeholders conducted by an expert team of ethnographers and sociologists at provincial, county, and community levels. The integrated social-environmental analysis consisted of three main components: (1) analysis of affected communities’ concerns about environmental impacts of eucalypt plantation (based on the social survey), (2) a cost-benefit analysis, and (3) scenario analysis. For the cost-benefit analysis, a simplified matrix of potential beneficial and adverse impacts was developed. The scenario analysis presents two scenarios: (a) with Stora Enso and (b) without Stora Enso. It then evaluates each of these scenarios at the national, provincial, and local levels.

At its anticipated peak of operation, the project would affect over 130,000 households in land leasing alone. This presents income-generating potential for those choosing to lease out their land, which could bring significant improvements in livelihood. The degree to which households benefit depends, in large part, on the contractual terms of that leasing arrangement and alternative land lease options available to them. In terms of employment, as many as 30,000 individuals will gain income-generating work opportunities.

Some of these will be local residents, others will be migrant laborers coming to Guangxi to look for work. The team did not discover any major “show-stoppers” or social or environmental disasters in-the-making having the potential to jeopardize Stora Enso operations in Guangxi. The ESIA, however, did find major challenges in the social dimensions, while environmental impacts are much more related to plantation operations and therefore can be mitigated through rigorous and disciplined management.


Need for communication and social engagement
Stora Enso’s plantation program directly involves more than 10 different types of local affected groups (e.g. farmers renting land, migrant labour, state farm staff, etc). When functioning fully it will affect a population on the order of 650,000 people in 130,000 households through land rental alone. While offering potential income opportunities, especially on formerly unproductive wasteland or slopeland, this project also offers substantial challenges in engaging and communicating effectively.

Poor initial engagement with affected communities could present considerable risks to Stora Enso’s plantation business. Should communities refuse to rent land, or offer labour or, in the worst case, prevent Stora Enso from conducting its legitimate operations through civil disobedience, the business attraction of the Guangxi project will be diminished.

Information Flow and Gap
A critical need exists to improve the flow of information from the company to its "village rental" and other stakeholders and to ensure greater transparency in the process. A striking finding of the survey is that stakeholders have a strong desire for information on the company and its plantation project.

Survey results also show that while stakeholders do have some information on the project, they rarely get it directly from Stora Enso. Information relating to land rental must reach those who use the land, not simply village and community leaders.

Although the scientific review and expert testimonies conducted do not suggest negative environmental impacts, the large scale survey and expert fieldwork found that people appear genuinely worried about the environmental impacts of eucalypt on human, animals, crops, soil, and water. Local communities and households should be given the information they need to alleviate their fears. In addition, some of the ecological concerns voiced may actually have been a means of indirectly expressing overall dissatisfaction with the rental, in which case the roots of this dissatisfaction (e.g rental terms, participation, etc., as discussed elsewhere) must be addressed.

Land Rental Decision Making Process
In terms of village land use rights, land rental in village areas includes both private and collective land. The ESIA found participation in the decision to rent collective land to be weak. The majority of project village households surveyed indicate a small group of people had represented their community in making the collective rental decision, while only about 30 percent indicated that the collective had followed the legal procedure of at least two-thirds vote for the decision of collective land rental. Some village households renting private land also expressed a feeling of not having been given a choice in the matter.

These results are likely linked much more closely to the traditional practices of public decision-making in the areas involved than to any special characteristics of Stora Enso’s project. While it would be difficult and inappropriate for Stora Enso to attempt to directly influence the collective decision-making process, both the company and the government should make greater efforts to ensure that private land rental is in all cases fully voluntary and transparent.

Generally, findings suggest that farmers have made a rational choice to rent out their land, despite the possibly lower income per mu relative to other options, because of certain constraints such as the financial strength, know-how, and economies of scale needed to develop the alternatives. Farmers, however, lack an advocate in the rental process to help them make decisions and consider the longer-term implications. Also, while findings do not indicate that middle-persons (either those that “introduce” rental opportunities to the company or those that rent land from others and then re-rent to the company) benefit excessively from their role, there is a need to monitor their benefits.

Ideally, given increasing divisions (in terms of income) in rural China, Stora Enso would cooperate directly, to the extent possible, with those renting out their land, so as not to promote such divisions.

The ESIA team also revealed that dissatisfaction with the rental process on collective land could originate not in actions made by the company, but in the decisions over whether or not to rent collective land and how collective rental income is spent. In contrast to findings on private land rental, in which households are indeed the final decision-makers, the analysis found participation in decisions over community land to be weak. These decisions are made completely separate from the company, and separate to the company’s lease terms, but might influence overall impression of the company and the desire to lease land in the future. This conflict is best resolved at the local village level, but could be moved along with support and encouragement from the company given the stake that all entities have in making land leasing a win-win situation.

Stora Enso also rents land from state forest farms. Results indicate that state farm staff in project areas, as a group, do not strongly support land rental to Stora Enso, are not involved in the decision (though their involvement is not legally required) to rent, and are not very aware of rental terms. Interestingly, however, 83% of state farm households who participate in work on Stora Enso plantations and who responded to the surveys revealed that their annual cash income had increased by 2872.2 yuan. Findings suggest a need to explore further the issue of participation of state farm workers in rental decisions or at least ensure they are informed and benefit from the rental.

Results suggest the poorest in the community still depend on fuelwood collected from collective and private use forest land. Fieldwork uncovered perceptions that these people will be denied access to fallen woody branches or woody harvesting residues in areas under Stora Enso’s management. Discussions with Stora Enso managers suggest that, while the company wishes to keep leaf and bark residues on site for soil protection, nutrient recycling, and water conservation, it is willing to allow collection of fallen woody branches and woody harvesting residues for fuelwood. This important message has not yet reached the affected people.

Records of Village Stakeholders
Accessible records of village stakeholders will be an important tool for the company as it strengthens its contacts with village and community stakeholders. Computer-based systems will be very useful and the company should upgrade its information systems to accommodate a database including, to the extent possible, the name, location, and nature of rental of each and every household involved in the project. The database might also keep a record of company liaison with and information flow to each of these households.

Perceptions of Slowness
Some villagers are concerned about Stora Enso being "slow" to develop the land. They worry they will not receive rental payments. Particularly, when Stora Enso does not develop the land for some time after rental, their concerns tend to grow. Findings indicate that in some cases rental payments have been delayed because of slowness in determining exact land area and borders, while, these issues are not unique to Stora Enso, and are typical of land boundary issues in rural China.

Employment, minority populations, gender perspective
Stora Enso plantation work presents an opportunity near to home for those locals that do not wish to outmigrate, though may not offer as many months per year of work as out-migration. Across survey groups, results indicate that respondents are not dissatisfied with their working conditions as compared to the alternatives, but nor do they believe their working conditions are particularly good compared to other options.

Employment Opportunities
Full-scale plantation employment generation once operations have reached steady state is estimated to be between 12,400 and 14,400 full-time jobs. A rough industry standard for all direct and indirect jobs, both related to plantations and the pulp mill itself and based on the scale of the planned mill, is 30,000 to 35,000 full-time jobs.

Work Contracts, Wage, Emergency Services, and other Employment Issues
The survey and expert fieldwork indicate that most employment on Stora Enso plantations (handled by contractors that develop the plantations for Stora Enso) is in compliance with local labor regulations and that serious employment problems have not emerged. Yet, there are a number of key areas with regard to employment that Stora Enso may wish to be aware of. First, contractors rarely have formal written contracts with the workers that they employ and have verbal agreements instead.

According to officials at the Guangxi Labor Bureau, if work is both for over three months and for 30 or more hours per week, then, contractors should be providing work contracts. Based on wage rates quoted in fieldwork, the minimum wage level set by the Labor Bureau is in most cases being met by Stora Enso contractors. Labor disputes have not become an important issue for workers involved in Stora Enso plantation development, though Stora Enso should be aware that such disputes do occur in the plantation contracting business. Serious on the job health and safety problems are uncommon among those working on Stora Enso's Guangxi plantations, though one important issue identified in the field is workers' lack of access to emergency services for cases such as urgent illness, injury, or exposure to natural disasters.

Lacking permanent local accommodation, most migrants live in simple work sheds or tents near the work site. Living conditions, while typical for this type of work, are poor.

Overall, work opportunities on the company's plantations do not appear to be higher for women than for men. Women, however, may appreciate the benefits from the project for different reasons: Some women, particularly those with children, do not want to out-migrate for work and appreciate the flexibility of plantation opportunities.

Also, through increased income, their role in decision making is strengthened. A negative impact of involvement on women would be higher work burdens, as most women will still have to perform their traditional household and agricultural activities in addition to their newly found work.

Ethnic Minorities
The proportion of minorities involved in village land rental to Stora Enso is small, but the counties and districts in which Stora Enso currently leases village land or may lease village land in the future have a minority population of about one million, or about nine percent of the total population of these areas. The main minorities in current and future Stora Enso village project areas are Zhuang, Yao, and Jing.

Minorities appear to be much more prevalent among migrant workers on Stora Enso plantations than among land renters. The ESIA team discovered well-integrated relations between Han and minorities.

Poor Households
The large role of migrant labour in the project and the significant proportion of migrants from Northwest Guangxi imply the project areas not to be the poorest within Guangxi. Guangxi has 4,060 "poverty villages." From 2005 to 2010, the province plans to conduct a poverty alleviation program for all these villages in three phases. The first phase will include 1,731 villages. Altogether, there are a total of 150 of these phase one "poverty villages" in the Stora Enso areas, making up about nine percent of phase one poverty alleviation targets.

Poorer households may be more willing to rent land to Stora Enso than others for reasons of: lacking financial resources to invest in their land, insufficient household labor to work on their land, urgent capital requirements for a particular reason, or desire to use the rental money as core investment for shifting themselves out of poverty. Thus, this group deserves special attention from Stora Enso.

Natural and cultural heritage
No major structures or sites of natural or cultural heritage significance were identified in the project area. Tombs and burial sites within plantations are believed a common issue to be addressed. While during the field visits and discussions with field managers and villagers, the team did not observe any evidence of conflicts on such an issue. It is believed, future graves can be an issue.


Local development needs
The ESIA team analysed the most important development needs of the surveyed groups, and used those findings to make recommendations to Stora Enso on how it can integrate its plantation into the local socio-economic fabric so that it addresses these needs and contributes to satisfying them.

The main needs of the local populations were found to be: irrigation, roads, medical services and drinking water.

These priorities provide indications to how Stora Enso might integrate its plantations (e.g. through road development) or non-project development work (e.g. work in healthcare, irrigation, or drinking water) to address the most pressing community development needs.

Results further indicated that interest in getting a loan is high among affected groups in project areas and higher than the proportion that believe they can get a loan through existing channels.

Health Services and Education
Health services and education are priorities for large proportions of project area respondents. The improvement of community medical services could be integrated into Stora Enso's corporate policy for its field workers’ health and safety. Education is also a sector in which needs in the area are strong and which is conducive to development projects.

Rural Tele-centres
While village respondents put a low priority (among other options) on telecommunications and the internet, an idea that would combine the company's needs to communicate with stakeholders with a development project is village tele-centres. The concept would call for the installation of a computer with internet connection (when possible) in project area natural villages. Villagers could use the centre to access information on Stora Enso, communicate with the company, and view materials on eucalypt plantations. Meanwhile, these centers could also function as a social gathering venue for entertainment, market information for their household agricultural and other products, information on employment opportunities, etc.

Small-scale Eucalypt Plantations
The survey and fieldwork indicate that some local people would like to develop their own eucalypt plantations, but lack the necessary funding, knowledge, and technology.

Development Initiatives in Migrant Communities of Origin
Stora Enso may also wish to consider a non-profit development initiative in migrant villages of origin, keeping in mind their top-reported priorities of roads, water supply, medical services, and housing.


Awareness Campaign, Participation and Engagement with Society
The SIA team identified as top priority for communications work that:

• The company should strengthen its communication practices with local communities and seek expert advice on means through which more effective and transparent flow of information to all levels of affected communities can be achieved.
• The company should address, as a matter of urgency, issues surrounding clarity and transparency of rental agreements, fuelwood collection, and community perceptions of slowness. As a specific module in its communication program, the company (and its Government supporters) should not leave the eucalypt rumors within the communities unaddressed. Brochures, field demonstrations, and face to face meetings with concerned communities should all be a part of a program that seeks to reinforce the environmental credentials of the eucalypt program. Many problems in communication and lack of participation stem from the actual rental process itself, one that operates within already established local power frameworks that exist largely independent of Stora Enso, While recognizing this, relationships created between the company representatives, middlemen, decision makers in collectives, local government, and laborers also influence the degree to which households can benefit from new opportunities, on the one hand, or avoid negative impacts of the project on the other. In this light, the company may also wish to employ a number of additional means to support better awareness and participation, such as:
• Maintaining a greater presence of national and foreign staff in the field to help explain the project directly to people.
• Development of peer support groups within villages.
• Establishment and support for forest plantation associations, which include land users and managers, contractors, and other stakeholders.
• Expansion of the functions of the company’s Hotline.
• A strengthened schools' program and additions to the curricula.
• Development of tele-centres (web-based information systems) as a part of the school computer program or general village out-reach.
• Regular excursions organized for local communities to plantation sites. In the longer term, an annual opportunity to visit the pulp mill.
• Introduction of communications approaches with sensitivity for gender, ethnicity, and poverty.

There is a difference between what is legally acceptable for establishment of plantations in rural Guangxi and the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) principles of Stora Enso. To maintain a position as an employer of choice for plantation workers in southern Guangxi, Stora Enso should offer a safe and healthy work environment. The following recommendations are offered:

• Stora Enso provides clear guidelines for minimum working conditions and wages to its contractors, and makes these publicly available to the local communities and migrant workers.
• A comprehensive monitoring system is introduced for contractors to ensure that the legal requirements for minimum wages are met and that they follow corporate guidelines.
• The company works with contractors to improve the living conditions of migrant workers, taking into consideration supply of minimum standard temporary accommodation and drinking water.
• Whilst migrant relationships with local communities are wider problems best dealt with by local governments, Stora Enso sets an example through encouragement of its staff to treat migrants well through a corporate culture that encourages respect.
• The company, in consultation with local authorities, develops processes to resolve labor disputes should these arise (especially important given the general absence of written labor contracts between workers and the contractors).

Development Initiatives
Stora Enso has expressed an interest in continuing to pursue development projects in affected communities. Stora Enso is not a specialized development agency itself. At the same time, in the spirit of Public Private Partnership, Stora Enso may consider cooperating with and engaging international and national development agencies, government institutions, and NGOs to meet priority needs of social and environmental development in its project areas.

The ESIA results indicate that top development priorities of stakeholders in village areas are irrigation, roads, medical services, and drinking water, while for forest farm communities these are medical services, roads, provision for the aged, and improvement of living environment. Education is also an important area for a large proportion of respondents in both groups.

A social development fund could be conceived as an umbrella mechanism to meet these above priorities of development needs of the project communities.


Whilst the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment of Stora Enso’s eucalypt plantation project in Guangxi has an obvious focus upon the company’s operations, other needs were identified during the fieldwork and surveys. Three such needs which deserve attention from Government administrations are:

Revenues and Tax
The study has demonstrated that the Stora Enso project will deliver substantial revenues through taxes, fees, levies and other administrative imposts from local governments. The current ESIA analysis could not identify actual future allocation and expenditure of such tax and revenues. In particular, it is unclear how large a proportion of government revenues from the project will be returned to the plantation
communities for environmental and social needs. It is critical that the investment will directly generate sound social and environmental results, while pro-poor redistribution of the tax revenue is fundamentally important for equity and quality service delivery to vulnerable groups and communities.

In the past, a significant part of the mill door delivered cost of wood in Guangxi was taxes and fees. While these have been reduced substantially, there is still some lack of clarity with regard to taxes and fees. Earlier studies in Guangxi in 2003 identified some 30 different taxes, fees, government charges, and other levies, which were due between harvesting and delivery to the mill gate. In Jiangxi, similar studies have identified some 14 “unofficial forestry fees” imposed by county, prefecture, township and village administrations. Whilst these taxes could potentially benefit the broader community, they have in the past also acted as a serious disincentive to growers of commercially grown wood and successful and competitive wood processors. The issues surrounding tax on commercially grown eucalypt wood in Guangxi are far from clear and there is a pressing responsibility for Governments and administrations at all levels to provide clear and unambiguous rulings.

Advocacy for Viable Land Use Options
As do most plantation companies, Stora Enso disseminates information about the benefits of plantation forestry as a viable land use alternative. Following government priorities to promote the plantation industry, the provincial government and administrations at city, county and collective levels also disseminate information that is pro-plantation. The ESIA study could not identify any source of impartial advice for farmers and communities wishing to assess and discuss land-use options for their private and community lands. The benefits of impartial, third-party information include better-informed land-users with a greater commitment to the land-use choice they have made. Such an impartial information source would avoid land-users placed at a disadvantage due to lack of information, especially when discussing and negotiating land lease contract terms with companies or forestry bureaux. The ESIA team suggests that such a mechanism be put in place.

Support for Stora Enso’s CSR and sustainable plantation policies.
Whilst Stora Enso has a corporate commitment to CSR and to transparency, these worthy principles can only be delivered within the context of China and Guangxi. If Guangxi is to benefit from Stora Enso’s high technical, environmental and social standards, then the Government should be encouraged to work with the company to facilitate achievement of these standards. Examples where such dialogue and cooperation might be required are via accurate mapping of natural habitats not suitable for conversion, equitable and transparent systems for land acquisition, treatment of migrant workers and exchange and transfer of hybrid clones. This issue should remain a regular item of discussion between the company and the Guangxi authorities and is critical in the possible absence of media coverage or supportive NGOs.

Maintenance of Landscape Diversity
In promoting and expanding the substantial eucalypt plantation base in Guangxi, maintenance of landscape diversity will remain an important consideration in sustainability for all plantation growers.
There is a role for the Provincial authorities to offer coordination in southern Guangxi to balance the legitimate commercial needs of Stora Enso, Asia Pulp and Paper, Guangxi Oji Plantation Forest Co and other growers with the needs to maintain healthy landscape diversity.

Need for Monitoring and Adaptive management
Finally, both the Government and Stora Enso will need to monitor and respond to issues which might affect productivity, the environment or the community. Monitoring systems will provide the data against which Stora Enso’s own commitments to Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainable plantation management will be judged. An environmental and social monitoring plan is important and would be integrated with the regular monitoring of plantation productivity and should logically incorporate the elements of maintenance and improvement of site productivity, clone performance, issues relating to soils, quality and quantity of water and biodiversity at species, ecosystem and landscape levels, social issues relating to skills development, poverty, access to infrastructure and services, quality of life, gender and levels of community consultation and participation. Mechanisms should be put in place to provide guidance to plantation managers based on the results of monitoring, so that management practices can be adapted as needed.

This basic overview of issues, opportunities and recommendations resulting from the Social Impact Assessment demonstrates that large-scale bioenergy projects are set to permeate a great variety of aspects of social life and local economies. Land ownership issues and land-lease traditions, labor issues and migration patterns, local political decision making strategies and traditions, gender effects and the impact on ethnic minorities, income and inequality effects, development needs and the impacts on cultural heritage, perceptions about communication, economics and social relations... most of these dynamic social phenomena can be measured and projected if strong analytical frameworks and good ethnographic research is utilised.

Together with general government policies on social sustainability criteria for bioenergy (earlier post), SIAs will determine how a particular project fits into the dense cultural and social fabric of local communities. SIAs not only give private companies an overview of what they can expect once they implement their project, they also offer local, regional, national and even international governments, NGOs and development agencies insights into which practises and projects work and which don't. SIAs can be the basis of social and economic policies.

More information:

United Nations Development Program, Energy & Environment: Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Stora Enso Plantation Project in Guanxi, China [*.pdf] - Publication Date: Feb 2006, UNDP China, 208 pages.

Stora Enso: UNDP and Stora Enso - developing local communities to reduce poverty - March 14, 2007

Biopact: An in-depth look at Brazil's "Social Fuel Seal" - March 23, 2007

Biopact: A closer look at sustainability criteria for biofuels - March 07, 2007

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Scientists break down lignin to enter a world of sugar and energy

With the help of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), researchers at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service's Dairy Forage Research Center (DFRC) are discovering new facts about the complex mechanism known as 'lignification'. The insights are an important step forward towards the efficient production of cellulosic ethanol. The april issue of Agricultural Research has the details.

Sugar and energy locked up
Lignin is the cementing agent that holds plant cell walls together. For bioenergy researchers, lignin and other cell-wall components are significant stumbling blocks to unlocking the enormous energy that’s tied up in plants. Because once you can crack the hard lignin-boundary, you enter a world of sugars - the building blocks of the carbohydrate economy and of a huge quantity of biofuels.

Scientists are now trying to develop so-called 'third generation' biofuels, that are marked by two main features: (1) they make use of efficient biochemical and thermochemical conversion processes aimed at breaking down the lignin and hemicellulose in order to free the sugars contained in the biomass, but (2) critically, the energy crops themselves have been engineered in such a way that the plant's cells contain less lignin (image, click to enlarge). For them to succeed, they need to understand better how plants make lignin.

Plants use three main materials to build their cell walls: the polysaccharides cellulose and hemicellulose and the phenolic polymer lignin. Cellulose is a chain of glucose (sugar) molecules strung together. As these molecules multiply, they organize themselves in linear bundles that crisscross through the cell wall, giving the plant strength and structure.

The cellulose bundles are weakly bound to an encircling matrix of hemicellulose, which is strongly linked to lignin. The gluey lignin polymer further strengthens plants and gives them flexibility. Lignin is the reason plants can pop back up after heavy rains and winds. And it’s how they made the leap from a life in the ocean to one on land eons ago.

Plants have invested great energy in crafting exquisite cell-wall structures that resist degradation and loss of their precious sugars. Over the course of millions of years, they’ve had to fend off an insatiable crowd of energy-hungry fungi, bacteria, herbivores—and now, people.

A tricky and sticky plasticity
John Ralph, a DFRC chemist, is one of the scientists who have been focusing on lignin's structural details. With the help of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), a technology that takes advantage of the magnetic fields surrounding atoms, Ralph and colleagues have been able to chip away at lignin’s mysteries, including how plants make it. Many of Ralph’s insights have come from years of scrutinizing the lignin structures in transgenic plants. He says there’s much to be learned about a gene by watching what happens when it’s altered.

Almost 10 years ago, Ralph and colleagues published a paper describing what happens to loblolly pine trees when they’re deprived of the gene that codes for cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase—an enzyme that helps make vital lignin building blocks. Ralph says that even with extremely low levels of the important lignin-building enzyme, the trees compensated by incorporating novel monomers—small molecules that can bind with others to form polymers—to ensure that they had the necessary lignin-like glue to perform basic functions:
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After having used NMR and other methods to analyze many other genetically transformed plants—including tobacco, aspen, alfalfa, corn, and the model plant Arabidopsis—Ralph and his colleagues and collaborators have laid a foundation of basic knowledge about how lignin production is orchestrated in plants.

Two lignin camps
Ralph belongs to a major camp of scientists who maintain that the formation of the lignin polymer is pretty much a random affair—not strictly controlled by proteins and enzymes like many other plant polymers are. Another group declares that lignification is just like protein building, a process that’s predictable and leaves few surprises.

But Ralph contends that there are a wider number of building blocks the plant has at its disposal for assembling lignified cell walls. And the plant can put these components together in a virtually infinite number of ways, like the pine trees—and many other transgenic plants—did.

This is what Ralph calls “metabolic plasticity.” As he sees it, lignification is “a remarkably evolved solution that allows plants considerable flexibility in dealing with various environmental stresses.”

Even if some don’t appreciate lignin’s evolutionary role in helping plants adapt, that’s okay, Ralph says. “A greater awareness of these plant processes will increase our opportunities to modify lignin composition and content.” Ultimately, the knowledge will lead to the development of biofuels from a third generation.

Zooming in on lignin
Another of DFRC’s many lignin-related discoveries has been especially well received in scientific circles. For the first time, Fachuang Lu, a research associate in Ralph’s group, has found a way to study the highly detailed chemical structure of the entire plant cell wall.

In the past, the job of extracting the various polymers from cell walls for detailed analysis required the deftness of a brain surgeon. There was always a tradeoff between the integrity of the material extracted and the speed with which it could be done.

Now, entire cell walls can be dissolved in a special solution in which all their contents—cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin—are dissolved in a matter of hours instead of weeks, as with traditional methods. Once all the polymers are in the solution, NMR can provide a structural picture of them.

“Traditionally, we could only get a portion of the cell wall into solution,” Ralph says. “By using this new solution and NMR method, we can get a chemical fingerprint of the major and minor structures of the entire cell wall. The amount of detail is striking.”

Researchers interested in running cell-wall samples from either conventionally bred or genetically modified energy crops can use the tool to get a zoomed-in view of what their plants’ modified cell walls look like. With such powerful capabilities, the method can serve as an important gauge of progress.

Low-input plants for energy
In addition to probing minute cell-wall structures, DFRC scientists are also breeding plants that possess energy-friendly qualities. Casler is hanging his hopes on grasses—the perennials that cover an estimated one-third of the nation’s acreage.

Aside from switchgrass, on which he’s built an entire breeding program, Casler is also eyeing the promise of other low-input grasses, such as smooth bromegrass, orchardgrass, and reed canarygrass. He thinks they’ve got the potential to feed both cows and the country’s enormous energy appetite. An ARS researcher in Tifton, Georgia, is also looking at several alternatives to switchgrass.

Casler and colleague Hans Jung, a DFRC dairy scientist based at St. Paul, Minnesota, have been selecting grasses that possess either less lignin or fewer ferulates. “Ferulates” are chemicals that help bind lignin to hemicellulose in the cell wall, impeding access to the sugars.

“When we started these studies,” Casler says, “we wondered: Is it lignin that’s most responsible for binding up the carbohydrates, or is it the way ferulates link the lignin to hemicellulose?”

After running studies in several grass species, Casler, Jung, and collaborators have proved that either approach works when it comes to breaking down tough cell walls. Hoping to breed plants whose cell walls are more easily degraded, Casler and Jung will soon begin crossing promising grass lines.

Focusing on Alfalfa
Other DFRC researchers are focused on alfalfa—a crop that, unlike corn and other grasses, fixes its own nitrogen and so requires less fertilizer. Plant physiologist Ronald Hatfield and molecular geneticist Michael Sullivan are working to boost alfalfa’s biomass by altering genes that affect its development.

“We’re looking at alfalfa’s developmental structure, how it branches,” says Hatfield. “We’re also trying to reduce leaf abscission, or leaf drop.”

Because alfalfa plants are grown close together, many of their understory leaves fall off from lack of sunlight. Hatfield and Sullivan would like to minimize loss of this valuable plant material.

Hatfield, Sullivan, and Ralph are collaborating with the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma, to build the ideal alfalfa plant.

“The Noble Foundation usually engineers the plants with reduced lignin,” Hatfield explains. “Then we use NMR and other analytical techniques to see what the modified cell walls look like and how easily they can be processed either by the cow or for biomass conversion to energy.”

The alfalfa research team has already discovered that when they transform plants by down-regulating enzymes called “methyl transferases,” they can reduce lignin content, boost cellulose content, and enhance cell-wall digestibility.

Bioenergy’s just part of a bigger picture
In the end, DFRC researchers believe that agriculture’s role in supplying renewable energy to the country is crucial. But Hatfield cautions that the bioenergy movement mustn’t miss the forest for the trees.

“We need to consider the whole agricultural picture,” he says. “You can’t convert everything into bioenergy.” There are other biobased products and niche industries to consider.

Take alfalfa, for instance. DFRC researchers have found that, in addition to providing great grist for the ethanol mill, alfalfa is a source of quality protein and health-promoting nutraceuticals. Plus, its fiber fractions have value as a water-filtering agent, and it’s an ideal substrate for making an all-natural glue. (See "New Bioadhesive's a Super Glue! sidebar" for details.)

“We’ve also got to think in terms of sustainability,” says Hatfield, “for the sake of local agricultural economies and our natural resources.”—By Erin K. Peabody, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.

Beyond switchgrass
Many researchers are investigating switchgrass as a source of bioenergy. But William Anderson, a geneticist in the Crop Genetics and Breeding Research Unit at Tifton, Georgia, says several other perennial grasses could also be developed into biofuels.

Anderson and colleagues are working with plants adapted to the southeastern United States, including bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon), bahiagrass (Paspalum notatum), and napiergrass (Pennisetum purpureum). Each has its own advantages:

• Bermudagrass is already grown over millions of acres as forage. It is highly digestible for livestock and has good potential for conversion to ethanol.

• Bahiagrass offers less yield and lower quality than bermudagrass, but it grows well in marginal land and is easily established.

• Napiergrass, unlike the other perennial grasses, could be totally dedicated to energy use. In a 6-year study in Georgia at three locations, it outyielded bermudagrass and switchgrass by 5 tons of dry matter per acre per year. And in preliminary studies, it was converted to ethanol at a rate similar to switchgrass.

Anderson and colleagues are evaluating these grasses for desired genetic traits and breeding them for increased biomass production and better cell-wall degradability. “We’re also crossing napiergrass with pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), which has certain traits that reduce the amount and types of lignin, making the conversion to ethanol easier,” he says.

Image one: Structural cell wall components and third generation biofuels. Courtesy: ARS.
Image two: Chemist Fachuang Lu (pointing) and postdoc Hoon Kim view two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance data of a dissolved whole cell wall. Courtesy: ARS.

More information:
Agricultural Research Service: Breaking Down Walls - April 2007.
Agricultural Research Service: Probing Tiny Plant Cells to Unleash Big Bioenergy - April 3, 2007

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Honda and Climate Energy bring micro-CHP to market

Combined-heat-and-power (CHP) or cogeneration systems are becoming popular on a utility scale, because of their high efficiency compared to ordinary power plants that produce a lot of heat that gets lost (image, click to enlarge). Large-scale CHP is tied to the urban fabric of the site where electricity and heat are generated. In so-called 'district heating' concepts, the power plant delivers heat directly to end-users. CHP used in combination with biomass or biogas - already commonly found in Europe - makes for a very clean and efficient energy system.

However, the ultimate dream of energy engineers has been to find ways to scale down CHP systems in such a way that each household can have its own highly efficient power-station at home. Some progress has been made towards the development of such micro-CHP systems that can handle biomass (basically wood pellets). But now Honda Motor and Climate Energy announced they have started retail sales of 'freewatt', micro-CHP cogeneration system for homes that works on natural gas. Obviously, when biogas is used instead - an option becoming feasible where biogas is being fed into the main natural gas grid (as is being done on an ever larger scale in Europe) - then we are en route to a genuinely green revolution.

But let us have a look at the 'freewatt' micro-CHP system that will be for sale in the U.S. (image, click to enlarge). It is comprised of an MCHP cogeneration unit developed by Honda, which is paired with a furnace or boiler produced by Climate Energy. This system provides heat for the home with the added benefit of electricity production. The ultra-quiet MCHP unit produces 3.26 kilowatts of heat and 1.2 kilowatts of electric power. Further, it allows homeowners to reduce their utility bills and curb carbon dioxide emissions while improving overall energy efficiency and comfort.

In relation to energy costs, Climate Energy test data has shown that when the freewatt Micro-CHP system replaces a typical 80% efficiency home heating system, homeowners can realize an average of 30% in energy cost savings:
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The freewatt system produces electric power as a by-product of its heating functionality. The electric power produced displaces electricity that consumers would otherwise purchase from the local electric utility, saving $500 to $1000 per year on their electric bill. An additional unique financial savings benefit of utilizing the freewatt system is realized through the process of net metering.

In states where legislated, net metering allows homeowners to literally sell unused electric power back to the power grid in their community, providing additional savings.

In addition, the system produces 30% less carbon dioxide emissions than a conventional heating system with electricity provided from the grid. This allows homeowners to take an active role in the effort to reduce greenhouse gases.

Comfort is enhanced due to the system's ability to provide constant and extremely quiet circulation of heated air. This produces more uniform and comfortable temperatures in the home without running noisy blowers at high speeds.

Initial sales of the heat and power units will be targeted at customers living in the Northeastern United States in conjunction with select local utility providers.

This is due to the cold climate and high heating demand in the region which allows the system to provide the greatest benefit. The freewatt Micro-CHP systems will only be available through certified, trained, and authorized Climate Energy installation professionals.

Climate Energy and Honda plan to gradually expand production and sales of the freewatt Micro-CHP system and plan to introduce the system to other cold weather climates in the U.S. in the future. The units will be assembled domestically in the United States with components supplied by both companies. Currently, a similar version of an MCHP system is retailed in Japan, with over 45,000 units sold to date since its introduction in 2003.

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Turning pest into profit: but who created the pest in the first place?

In his series of essays titled 'How the World Works', Andrew Leonard offers a sharp view of some of the most challenging issues arising from the rapid globalisation of technology, science, trade and commerce, and how this affects the Global South.

In his analyses, Leonard often takes an ordinary story from the day's news, but deconstructs it, offers suggestions and criticism and puts the story in a new context so that it opens a new series of questions. In a piece titled 'Invader bush and the Namibian savanna', he follows up on the idea of using the pest for bioenergy, which we described earlier.

But Leonard asks a highly interesting question that can be asked for many other 'pest-into-profit' ventures: who created the problem in the first place, and what can we learn from these past mistakes?

The invador bush that plagues Namibia's grasslands is the result of over-grazing by cattle farmers in conjunction with the suppression of naturally occurring fires. In short, quick economic gain in the past has resulted in environmental degradation and consequent economic losses in the present:
I understand the attraction of transforming a nasty weed into an enlightening power source, we shouldn't lose sight of the depressing reality that it was human intervention that screwed up the eco-balance in Namibia, and unless we're extraordinarily careful, our "solutions" to the problems we've caused will only make matters worse. Suppose, for example, the electricity generation plan is a huge success, and there is suddenly a strong economic incentive to hack down all the acacia bushes currently making life so hard for cattle. Complete eradication of the invader bush, declares the bush encroachment report, would further destabilize the savanna.
We would go one step further and highlight the irony of some of the social aspects of the problem. Cattle farmers and ranchers made good profits from degrading the Namibian savanna. Their actions were largely to blame for triggering the invasion of the shrubs. And guess who is asking the Namibian (and European) government today to release massive funds to eradicate the pest? Exactly, the very same cattle farmers who caused it in the first place.

Now government intervention usually relies on utilising money that was collected via taxes levied (progressively or not) on the entire population of a country. In this case, all Namibians would have to contribute to solving a costly problem that was created by only a handful of them. The principle of 'pest-provoker pays' does not hold here:
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The Namibian case offers an interesting inroads into exploring the the tensions between social and environmental sustainability of bioenergy on the one hand, and commercial gain on the other.

The costly interventions to eradicate the pest that were proposed earlier (chemical treatment, controlled burning of the lands) and that would have relied on contributions from all Namibians, have been abandoned and replaced by a proposal the nature of which hints at potential returns for all Namibians. The idea is to use the bushes as a bioenergy feedstock that will fuel a decentralised energy paradigm that might bring much needed electricity to some of the poorest. In principle, such a decentralised energy system can have a redistributive and progressive function, benefiting those who have been abandoned by both the state and the economy.

However, for this to happen, the accent should be shifted radically from the past stress on simple 'commercial gain', to social and environmental sustainability - guaranteed and monitored by government and science. Leonard:
In a perfect world, careful scientists working together with responsible government officials might be able to figure out just how much human commercial activity the savanna could bear, and put into effect policy recommendations that kept everything hanging together.
Leonard quotes from the report on invader bush which we linked to, and which indicates that a careful balance between economic gain and environmental sustainbility is crucial:
The potential wood available for harvesting varies between 10 and 20 tonnes per hectare in the different districts, and total yield is largely influenced by the prevailing invader species. Care needs to be taken that these considerations will not become more important than ecological considerations. Thus, harvesting should take place in accordance with ecological principles.
Mistakes from the past (often the result of a primitive modernistic ideology based on a disconnect between nature and economy), have allowed scientists to learn more about Namibia's complex savanna ecology. This knowledge must now form the basis of a pest-into-profit project that is genuinely sustainable.

After all, bioenergy is not automatically an environmentally friendly or socially sustainable form of energy production. Things can go two ways. If implemented badly, bioenergy projects can mimic and perpetuate the energy paradigm of the past, which was based on uncareful resource extraction and on economics that lead to inequality and to the concentration of capital and power. But in principle, biofuels and bioenergy do offer the potential to build another future. Namibia can cut itself loose from the idea that mere market forces should determine what a country's energy economy should look like. Instead, it can choose for the alternative. And in this case, it might mean that some of the invader bushes are left for what they really are: nature's response to a broken ecological balance.

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The bioeconomy at work: Dutch biorefinery project CATCHBIO receives first nod

As part of a €100 million investment program aimed at boosting innovation in the Netherlands, the ambitious research project CATCHBIO has received backing [*Dutch] from the commission responsible for screening the applications. It was selected as one of the best projects out of a total of 155 other submissions.

CATCHBIO - Catalysis for Sustainable Chemicals from Biomass [*Dutch] - is a project aimed at producing an integrated stream of innovative plant-based products, from fuels and bioplastics to green bulk and specialty chemicals. Built around the concept of biorefineries, the project focuses on optimising transformation and bioconversion processes that make use of all the components of plants.

The CATCHBIO project is a joint initiative of 23 of the Netherlands' leading research organisations, including the NIOK (Netherlands Institute for Research in Catalysis), most universities, led by the University of Utrecht, a host of public research institutes and private companies.

Research has shown that the Netherlands excel in innovation in emerrging fields like green chemistry and advanced biorefinery research (earlier post). By joining the expertise of the country's top researchers, the Netherlands is betting on pushing the 'bioeconomy' forward, in a way similar to how it stimulated the growth of its leading petrochemical industry. The Dutch government is now promoting the work of a high-level Focus Group on Chemistry which prepares the country for a future in which the country's chemical sector halves its consumption of fossil fuels. CATCHBIO is closely linked to this group and prepares the Netherlands for a post-oil world.

Green chemistry is a new field of research that opens tremendous opportunities for the creation of a sustainable economy, even though the challenges are considerable. After all, there are major differences between the new kind of chemistry and the traditional discipline, which was built for a large part on utilising petroleum. In each of the chemical industry's classic sectors - fine chemistry, bulk chemistry and fuels - new processes have to be developed and optimised.

Petroleum offered simple and robust raw materials such as ethane, the basis for robust, well-established chemical conversion paths. Biomass on the contrary offers a much wider variety of useful compounds, even though they are far more fragile and complex (these were lost when biomass underwent its transformation into fossil fuels):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Examples of these complex structures are bonds with oxygen, unsaturated bonds and compounds based on cyclic bonds. Transforming these into useful compounds requires sophisticated and subtle chemistry.

This is the challenge for the catalysis experts participating in the CATCHBIO project. Catalsysts will have to be developed that allow targetted and selective reactions under controlled and mild reaction-conditions.

New concepts for organic synthesis are being looked into, that will allow the integration of the stepts involved in separating compounds, purifying them and utilising them.

This presents a challenge to technology as such. In classic petrochemistry, the separation and purification (e.g. distillation) often requires considerable amounts of costly energy inputs. Chemistry based on biomass is not more cost or energy efficient from the start. Many reactions, for example, are carried out in water, which is is preferrable over using organic solvents, but if the product has to be obtained from a strongly diluted substance and consequently the water must be purified intensively, then we are hardly looking at a more sustainable process. In short, green chemistry is a complex new world that opens opportunities but tremendous challenges as well.

The CATCHBIO project is part of the SmartMix program of the Dutch government, which is aimed at stimulating scientific, technological, economical and socio-cultural innovation.

More information:
Joint release by the University of Utrecht, Nederlands Instituut voor Onderzoek in de Katalyse, and Advanced Chemical Technologies for Sustainability: Duurzame chemie ontwikkelen voor een duurzame samenleving, Positief advies Smart Mix voor CATCHBIO [dutch] - March 29, 2007.

University of Utrecht: Miljoenensubsidie voor onderzoeksproject naar biobrandstof [*Dutch] - March 28, 2007.

University of Groningen: CatchBio presentation [*Dutch]

AgriHolland: Positief advies voor onderzoeksprogramma CATCHBIO [*Dutch] - March 29, 2007.

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Corn ethanol could hurt poor's food security; other biofuels can strengthen it

The push toward corn-based ethanol has the potential to starve millions around the world, two economists from the University of Minnesota say.

The demand for ethanol has pushed corn prices to record highs, and economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, writing in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, warn that the rise in prices will likely hurt the world's poor.

Energy efficiency should be the Bush administration's mantra, they say, adding that the drive toward ethanol should be tempered until it can be produced efficiently from cellulosic material.

"Resorting to [corn based] biofuels is likely to exacerbate world hunger," they write in Foreign Affairs. "Several studies by economists at the World Bank and elsewhere suggest that caloric consumption among the world's poor declines by about half of one percent whenever the average prices of all major food staples increase by one percent."

In a 2003 study, the two professors showed that given rates of economic and population growth, the number of hungry worldwide would fall by 23 percent, to about 625 million, by 2025, as long as agricultural productivity improved enough to keep the relative price of food constant. But the rise in the price of foodgrains because of the increased demand for biofuels could lead to more hungry people the world over.

"The number of food-insecure people in the world would rise by over 16 million for every percentage increase in the real prices of staple foods," they write. "That means that 1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 2025 -- 600 million more than previously predicted."

Although much of the corn used in the United States is not for human but animal consumption, the demand for ethanol has pushed farmers to grow more corn at the expense of other crops, leading to high poultry and related prices:
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The conclusion should be obvious: like the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation says, let the poor themselves produce biofuels. There is enough land available in countries often plagued by food insecurity. What these countries need is financial and agronomic inputs, and market access. If these conditions are met, poor farmers in the tropics and subtropics can lift themselves out of poverty and food insecurity by selling biofuels to local and international markets.

Moreover, the effect of high fossil fuel prices and energy insecurity is devastating to the development of the world's poorest economies. A switch to competitive biofuels may temper these effects and save funds that can be invested in social and rural development and in poverty alleviation. In many cases, if a developing country in the tropics and subtropics does not create a biofuels industry, it will lose huge amounts of money on importing expensive fossil fuels.

Economists from the International Energy Agency has clearly shown the strict correlation between Human Development (as defined by the UN) and energy security.

More information:

C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007

Biopact: ICRISAT launches pro-poor biofuels initiative in drylands - March 15, 2007

IEA: World Energy Outlook, 2004 [*.pdf] [see Chapter 9, entirely devoted to "Energy and Development", one of the best introductions to the subject].

Biopact: Biofuels can cut poverty, provide energy and mitigate climate change – UN, April 14, 2005

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