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    TMO Renewables Limited, a producer of ethanol from biomass, has licensed the ERGO bioinformatics software developed and maintained by Integrated Genomics. TMO will utilize the genome analysis tools for gene annotation, metabolic reconstruction and enzyme data-mining as well as comparative genomics. The platform will enable the company to further understand and exploit its thermophilic strains used for the conversion of biomass into fuel. CheckBiotech - May 25, 2007.

    Melbourne-based Plantic Technologies Ltd., a company that makes biodegradable plastics from plants, said 20 million pounds (€29/US$39 million) it raised by selling shares on London's AIM will help pay for its first production line in Europe. Plantic Technologies [*.pdf] - May 25, 2007.

    Shell Hydrogen LLC and Virent Energy Systems have announced a five-year joint development agreement to develop further and commercialize Virent's BioForming technology platform for the production of hydrogen from biomass. Virent Energy Systems [*.pdf] - May 24, 2007.

    Spanish energy and engineering group Abengoa will spend more than €1 billion (US$1.35 billion) over the next three years to boost its bioethanol production, Chairman Javier Salgado said on Tuesday. The firm is studying building four new plants in Europe and another four in the United States. Reuters - May 23, 2007.

    According to The Nikkei, Toyota is about to introduce flex-fuel cars in Brazil, at a time when 8 out of 10 new cars sold in the country are already flex fuel. Brazilians prefer ethanol because it is about half the price of gasoline. Forbes - May 22, 2007.

    Virgin Trains is conducting biodiesel tests with one of its diesel engines and will be running a Voyager train on a 20 percent biodiesel blend in the summer. Virgin Trains Media Room - May 22, 2007.

    Australian mining and earthmoving contractor Piacentini & Son will use biodiesel from South Perth's Australian Renewable Fuels across its entire fleet, with plans to purchase up to 8 million litres from the company in the next 12 months. Tests with B20 began in October 2006 and Piacentinis reports very positive results for economy, power and maintenance. Western Australia Business News - May 22, 2007.

    Malaysia's Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui announces he will head a delegation to the EU in June, "to counter European anti-palm oil activists on their own home ground". The South East Asian palm oil industry is seen by many European civil society organisations and policy makers as unsustainable and responsible for heavy deforestation. Malaysia Star - May 20, 2007.

    Paraguay and Brazil kick off a top-level seminar on biofuels, cooperation on which they see as 'strategic' from an energy security perspective. 'Biocombustiveis Paraguai-Brasil: Integração, Produção e Oportunidade de Negócios' is a top-level meeting bringing together the leaders of both countries as well as energy and agricultural experts. The aim is to internationalise the biofuels industry and to use it as a tool to strengthen regional integration and South-South cooperation. PanoramaBrasil [*Portuguese] - May 19, 2007.

    Portugal's Galp Energia SGPS and Petrobras SA have signed a memorandum of understanding to set up a biofuels joint venture. The joint venture will undertake technical and financial feasibility studies to set up a plant in Brazil to export biofuels to Portugal. Forbes - May 19, 2007.

    The Cypriot parliament has rejected an amendment by President Papadopoulos on the law regarding the use of biofuels that contain genetically modified substances. The amendment called for an alteration in the law that currently did not allow the import or use of biofuels that had been produced using GM substances, something that goes against a recent EU Directive on GMOs. Cyprus Mail - May 18, 2007.

    According to Salvador Rivas, the director for Non-Conventional Energy at the Dominican Republic's Industry and Commerce Ministry, a group of companies from Brazil wants to invest more than 100 million dollars to produce ethanol in the country, both for local consumption and export to the United States. Dominican Today - May 16, 2007.

    EWE AG, a German multi-service energy company, has started construction on a plant aimed at purifying biogas so that it can be fed into the natural gas grid. Before the end of the year, EWE AG will be selling the biogas to end users via its subsidiary EWE Naturwatt. Solarthemen [*German] - May 16, 2007.

    Scania will introduce an ethanol-fueled hybrid bus concept at the UITP public transport congress in Helsinki 21-24 May 2007. The full-size low-floor city bus is designed to cut fossil CO2 emissions by up to 90% when running on the ethanol blend and reduce fuel consumption by at least 25%. GreenCarCongress - May 16, 2007.

    A report by the NGO Christian Aid predicts there may be 1 billion climate refugees and migrants by 2050. It shows the effects of conflicts on populations in poor countries and draws parallels with the situation as it could develop because of climate change. Christian Aid - May 14, 2007.

    Dutch multinational oil group Rompetrol, also known as TRG, has entered the biofuel market in France in conjunction with its French subsidiary Dyneff. It hopes to equip approximately 30 filling stations to provide superethanol E85 distribution to French consumers by the end of 2007. Energy Business Review - May 13, 2007.

    A group of British organisations launches the National Forum on Bio-Methane as a Road Transport Fuel. Bio-methane or biogas is widely regarded as the cleanest of all transport fuels, even cleaner than hydrogen or electric vehicles. Several EU projects across the Union have shown its viability. The UK forum was lauched at the Naturally Gas conference on 1st May 2007 in Loughborough, which was hosted by Cenex in partnership with the NSCA and the Natural Gas Vehicle Association. NSCA - May 11, 2007.

    We reported earlier on Dynamotive and Tecna SA's initiative to build 6 bio-oil plants in the Argentinian province of Corrientes (here). Dynamotive has now officially confirmed this news. Dynamotive - May 11, 2007.

    Nigeria launches a national biofuels feasibility study that will look at the potential to link the agricultural sector to the automotive fuels sector. Tim Gbugu, project leader, said "if we are able to link agriculture, we will have large employment opportunity for the sustenance of this country, we have vast land that can be utilised". This Day Onlin (Lagos) - May 9, 2007.

    Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva meets with the CEO of Portuguese energy company Galp Energia, which will sign a biofuel cooperation agreement with Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras. GP1 (*Portuguese) - May 9, 2007.

    The BBC has an interesting story on how biodiesel made from coconut oil is taking the pacific island of Bougainville by storm. Small refineries turn the oil into an affordable fuel that replaces costly imported petroleum products. BBC - May 8, 2007.

    Indian car manufacturer Mahindra & Mahindra is set to launch its first B100-powered vehicles for commercial use by this year-end. The company is confident of fitting the new engines in all its existing models. Sify - May 8, 2007.

    The Biofuels Act of the Philippines has come into effect today. The law requires all oil firms in the country to blend 2% biodiesel (most often coconut-methyl ester) in their diesel products. AHN - May 7, 2007.

    Successful tests based on EU-criteria result in approval of 5 new maize hybrids that were developed as dedicated biogas crops [*German]. Veredlungsproduktion - May 6, 2007.

    With funding from the U.S. Department of Labor Workforce Innovation for Regional Economic Development (WIRED), Michigan State University intends to open a training facility dedicated to students and workers who want to start a career in the State's growing bioeconomy. Michigan State University - May 4, 2007.

    Researchers from the Texas A&M University have presented a "giant" sorghum variety for the production of ethanol. The crop is drought-tolerant and yields high amounts of ethanol. Texas A & M - May 3, 2007.

    C-Tran, the public transportation system serving Southwest Washington and parts of Portland, has converted its 97-bus fleet and other diesel vehicles to run on a blend of 20% biodiesel beginning 1 May from its current fleet-wide use of B5. Automotive World - May 3, 2007.

    The Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP) and France's largest research organisation, the CNRS, have signed a framework-agreement to cooperate on the development of new energy technologies, including research into biomass based fuels and products, as well as carbon capture and storage technologies. CNRS - April 30, 2007.

    One of India's largest state-owned bus companies, the Andra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation is to use biodiesel in one depot of each of the 23 districts of the state. The company operates some 22,000 buses that use 330 million liters of diesel per year. Times of India - April 30, 2007.

    Indian sugar producers face surpluses after a bumper harvest and low prices. Diverting excess sugar into the ethanol industry now becomes more attractive. India is the world's second largest sugar producer. NDTVProfit - April 30, 2007.

    Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his Chilean counterpart Michelle Bachelet on Thursday signed a biofuel cooperation agreement designed to share Brazil's experience in ethanol production and help Chile develop biofuels and fuel which Lula seeks to promote in other countries. More info to follow. People's Daily Online - April 27, 2007.

    Italy's Benetton plans to build a €61 million wood processing and biomass pellet production factory Nagyatád (southwest Hungary). The plant will be powered by biogas. Budapest Sun - April 27, 2007.

    Cargill is to build an ethanol plant in the Magdeburger Börde, located on the river Elbe, Germany. The facility, which will be integrated into existing starch processing plant, will have an annual capacity of 100,000 cubic meters and use grain as its feedstock. FIF - April 26, 2007.

    Wärtsilä Corporation was awarded a contract by the Belgian independent power producer Renogen S.A. to supply a second biomass-fuelled combined heat and power plant in the municipality of Amel in the Ardennes, Belgium. The new plant will have a net electrical power output of 3.29 MWe, and a thermal output of up to 10 MWth for district heating. The electrical output in condensing operation is 5.3 MWe. Kauppalehti - April 25, 2007.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Government of West Bengal to kickstart biofuels industry for rural development

Biofuels are clearly 'value-free': both neoliberal free trade afficionados and anti-globalist organisations are investing heavily in the sector, as are moderate left-wing governments like those of Brazil and Chile as well as radical neo-communist and marxist states like Cuba and China or Burma and Venezuela. Joining the latter group is the 'Communist Party of India (Marxist)' ('CPI-M', not to be confused with the Communist Party of India) which controls the government of West Bengal state as well as that of the states of Kerala and Tripura. The CPI-M, which has been running the government of West-Bengal for over three decades, now announced it is set to encourage 'agriculture-based industry' by utilising the state's wastelands for the cultivation of biofuel feedstocks.

West-Bengal, India's third largest economy with a GDP of US$ 21 billion, has around 80 million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Together, rural Bengalis are responsible for 60% of the state's agricultural output, which ranks third in India and which provides 27% of the state's GDP. Of all states on the sub-continent, West-Bengal has the largest area of potential arable land. Its climate varies from tropical savannah in the southern portions to humid subtropical in the north. The Indian Ocean Monsoon brings rain to the whole state from June to September. A wide range of biofuel feedstocks can be grown in the region, from sugar cane (already a major industry) in the humid zones, to jatropha in the drier regions.

Despite communist control, the state is India's fastest growing economy, mainly because of successful policies aimed at attracting foreign investors, because of an excellent infrastructure and because of strategic investments in key sectors like IT and biotech. But a considerable number of people in West Bengal still live in dire poverty, mainly in the rural areas of the six northern districts of Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Malda, North Dinajpur and South Dinajpur and the three western districts of Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum.

The CPI-M now has its eyes on the biofuels sector, with a large scale jatropha programme as its first focus, aimed at offering employment opportunities to these rural poor, and to help them diversify their farming acitivities.

"The state government will shortly come up with a clear policy earmarking all the wastelands in West Bengal. Three departments - that of the panchayats [collectivities of villages], that of agriculture, and that of land reforms - are together working on this policy," West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya said today while laying the foundation stone of a biodiesel plant at Haldia in East Midnapore, 150 km from Calcutta, the state capital.

First biofuel plant under construction
Anticipating the implementation of the programme, Emami Biotech, a subsidiary of the Emami Group, one of India's major consumer products conglomerates, is already setting up the biodiesel project at Haldia, the first in eastern India, by investing 1.5 billion rupiah (€27/US$36.8 million). The plant has an initial capacity of 100,000 tons per annum and is expected to come on-stream by the end of 2007. The project's technical implementation is carried out in collaboration with an Italian-Belgian joint venture company.

"This biodiesel plant will be the first such agriculture-based industrial unit in West Bengal where farmers will be directly benefited," said Laksman Seth, chairman of the Haldia Development Authority. Other biofuel projects are under study.

Rural development
In order to supply the biofuel production plants adequately, jatropha cultivation over an area of 100,000 acres is essential, Chief Minister Bhattacharya said, adding that the program will create employment opportunities for 200,000 people at the rate of two persons per acre of cultivation. The CPI-M heavy weight added that after identifying the areas where feedstocks can be grown, the communist state government will directly involve the local farmers for cultivation of jatropha on the wastelands:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Pointing out the importance of alternative energy resources in the government's energy security strategy, the chief minister highlighted the fact that the state government has already started a pilot project for cultivating jatropha in Bankura district. He said there is huge potential to cultivate the feedstock in Purulia, West Midnapore (Jhargram sub-division) and Bankura districts.

Energy security
"It's high time we switch over from conventional resources to alternative energy resources procuring biodiesel or biogas. If we can encourage farmers to cultivate jatropha it would help a lot to generate biofuel in West Bengal," he said.

To strengthen the state's economic prosperity, the government will go in for jatropha cultivation in a big way and will motivate the farmers through the district administration, zilla parishads (local government body at the district level responsible for the administration of rural areas) and panchayats. The process is expected to start in the next few months.

Currently, India produces only 22 percent of its total diesel requirement and 78 percent is imported draining off huge amounts of foreign currency reserves every year, the chairman of the Haldia Development Authority said. Locally grown biofuels can boost both the state and the country's energy security.

Article continues

Japan opens 55 bioethanol gas stations

According to the Daily Yomiuri, a mixture of bioethanol and gasoline will be made available on a trial basis by the end of this week at 55 gas stations in selected locations across Japan. The alternative fuel will go on sale nationwide by 2010.

The fuel, to be marketed as "biogasoline," is a mixture of gasoline and 3% ethyl tertiary butyl ether (ETBE). The 10 petroleum wholesalers in Japan have jointly imported ETBE and will market biogasoline under their umbrella. The bulk of the imports come from Brazil (earlier post), since Japan has very few resources to grow its own energy crops (earlier post). For this reason, the country is actively investing in kickstaring a biofuels industry in the developing world, where a vast potential exists (see here and here).

According to the Petroleum Association of Japan (PAJ), the umbrella group coordinating the effort, the price and performance, in terms of octane rating, will be the same as regular gasoline. Since there is technically no problem in using the fuel in conventional vehicles, consumers are not expected to experience anything out of the ordinary when using the mixture.

The plans are to increase the number of biogasoline outlets to 100 by 2008, and 1,000 by 2009. In the year 2010, biogasoline is projected to constitute 20 percent of all gas sold in Japan, while there are plans to produce ETBE domestically from fiscal 2009, according to the PAJ:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Environment Ministry is also scheduled to launch a series of demonstration tests in August on a new type of biofuel produced by directly mixing gasoline and bioethanol. The Osaka prefectural government will conduct the tests on commission.

The introduction of biogasoline is aimed at helping to alleviate global warming.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, carbon dioxide generated from the combustion of bioethanol is not subject to CO2 reduction obligations for cutting greenhouse gases, since it is produced from crops that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Therefore, the larger the consumption of bioethanol in Japan, the more effective projects will be for achieving the CO2 reduction target. The use of bioethanol also lowers the dependence on petroleum and the effects of its erratic price fluctuations.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry is embarking on projects to encourage the use of domestically produced bioethanol to help farmers. As one analyst put it, this might be the year that marks "Japan's full-fledged utilization of bioethanol."

Two blending methods
The petroleum industry and the Environment Ministry are at odds over how bioethanol should be mixed with gasoline. The petroleum industry favors ETBE and the ministry prefers the direct ethanol-gasoline mixture.

This disagreement could hamper the spread of the new fuel. PAJ President Fumiaki Watari said, "The ETBE formula can be done through existing petroleum-refining facilities." "Since the operation for mixing ethanol with gasoline under this formula is done by petroleum refiners, attempts to dodge the gasoline tax can be effectively prevented," he added.

The direct mixture formula, by contrast, requires additional capital spending and cooperation from many companies to produce biogasoline, increasing worries of gasoline tax evasion, Watari said.

But the ministry argues the ETBE formula makes it technically difficult to raise the concentration of bioethanol in biogasoline. The government has set the amount of bioethanol in the mix at a maximum of 3 percent, but is considering raising that to 10 percent.

Environment Minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi said: "Many Japanese-made cars are used in such countries as Brazil, the United States and Canada, where the direct mixing formula is employed. This means there's no major technical problems in adopting the direct mixing method."

A senior official of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry argued that the petroleum industry's real intention is to maintain the "centrally controlled distribution system of petroleum products with the refiners at the top of the hierarchy."

"The Environment Ministry should also be brought to task for having failed to exchange views with the industry," the official added.

Need to rethink biofuel strategy
The program the government worked out in April 2005 for fulfilling Kyoto Protocol CO2 reduction goals calls for increasing the use of biofuel to the equivalent of 500,000 kiloliters of crude oil by fiscal 2010.

There are no feasible plans for achieving this other than through the petroleum industry's commitment to increase biofuel production to 210,000 kiloliters.

"The petroleum industry's project can never be considered sufficient to realize the government-set goal," said Yoshio Tamura, administrative vice minister of the Environment Ministry.

Under the circumstances, indications are that Japan, with its bleak prospects for expanding bioethanol production, likely will have to rethink its current biofuel strategy.

Article continues

Virgin Atlantic to fly 747 on biofuels in 2008 - looks to Africa

A few years ago, we once did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation and concluded that a relatively small patch of land in Africa could supply all biofuels needed to power all air traffic in the world's busiest skies, those of the US. Some laughed at the idea, but meanwhile, the use of biofuels for aviation is becoming a reality. Much quicker than anticipated. What's more, the man pushing the revolution is looking to Africa for sustainably produced supplies.

Rudimentary map used during heated 'Peak Oil' debate in 2004.
The first commercial aircraft, a Virgin Atlantic 747 jumbo jet, powered by a 60% biofuel-kerosene blend will fly next year in what could be a historic step towards airlines reducing their oil consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

The project was announced by Sir Richard Branson, and includes Boeing and General Electric, the engine-maker, as partners. They hope to have the “green” jumbo airborne in 2008. The airline and its partners are testing up to eight biofuels to determine which is most effective at altitude. Ethanol, which is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to petrol in cars, has been rejected because it does not burn well in thin-oxygen environments. Biobutanol and synthetic biofuels offer better performance.

There are several initiatives underway aimed at studying biofuels for aviation. So far we have seen breakthroughs in Brazil, where a biofuel company is cooperating with Boeing and NASA (earlier post) as well as in Argentina, where the airforce has been testing biofuels mixed with jet-fuel ('bio-kerosene') (earlier post), whereas the U.S. Air Force has been experimenting with synthetic fuels, which can be made from biomass (earlier post). The University of North Dakota recently received a US$5 million grant to develop military bio-jet fuels (earlier post).

More recently private company Diversified Energy developed biofuels that withstand very cold temperatures and could be used in aviation (earlier post), whereas North Carolina State University found an innovative technology for the production of biofuels for jet aircraft (earlier post), whereas a study for the US Military, written by Sasol, concluded that synthetic biofuels (Fischer-Tropsch) can power the entire military - including its airforce - in case of severe oil supply disruptions (earlier post).

Converting an aircraft to run on biofuel was thought to be a much longer-term project and the announcement from Virgin today will surprise those in the industry who have scorned the idea.

Aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions and is likely to be brought into the European Union's carbon emissions trading scheme from 2012 (earlier post). Virgin hopes that biofuel-powered aircraft could be operating commercially within five years, which could help to cut significantly the airline industry’s carbon dioxide emissions.

The industry is investing in lighter aircraft and new engines to improve fuel efficiency, but biofuels could eliminate oil dependence entirely. Sir Richard Branson launched Virgin Fuels last year, a division dedicated to commercialising aviation biofuels, pledging the profits from his airline and trains for the next ten years would be invested in the venture:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

A source close to the biofuel project said: “Everyone was saying that flying a plane with alternative energy sources was a decade away, but it is going much faster than that. The demonstration by a 747 next year will be a milestone in the airline industry’s attempts to reduce its CO2 emissions and cut its fuel bills.”

The trial will experiment with a mix of 60 per cent bio-fuel and 40 per cent kerosene, potentially enabling Virgin Atlantic to halve its carbon emissions. Sir Richard said Virgin Fuels, the group's new green energy division, was looking at the possibility of developing butanol as an aviation fuel in preference to ethanol which freezes at the altitude flown by jet aircraft.

Bio-fuels can be produced from a wide variety of crops including sugar beet and wheat. But Sir Richard said it was possible the crops could be grown in Africa, thereby helping to alleviate poverty on the continent at the same time as safeguarding the environment.

Article continues

FAO Committee on Commodity Problems: effect of biofuels on food prices temporary

Most of us do not realise it, but for decades there has been a downward trend in real food prices. It would be no exaggeration to say that the foodstuffs we consume on a daily basis are actually 'dirt cheap'. Because of an amazing agricultural revolution, the world's farmers currently produce so much food that they can feed 9 billion people. And, despite rapid economic growth in China and India, this trend towards even lower prices is set continue, according to the Committee on Commodity Problems (CCP). The CCP, an intergovernmental Committee of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also says the effect of biofuels on food prices is temporary and the result of a sudden rush towards abundant feedstocks, not affecting the fundamentals of the food commodity markets in the long run.

Commodity prices will continue to trend downward, despite biofuels
Food insecurity amidst an abundance of food
Still, despite the abundance of food, and despite the fact that there is enough carrying capacity to produce both food and fuel from crops in a sustainable manner and for rapidly growing populations, 800 million people face chronic or temporary food insecurity. The reasons for this complex situation are not the lack of food or the lack of the potential to produce more of it to keep up with demand. The main reasons are an unequal distribution of food, caused by infrastructural barriers, social inequality, lack of income amongst the poor, and trade distortions.

Coming just days after the FAO's historic meeting on biofuels where top scientists concluded that green fuels can boost development in the South (earlier post), the CCP opened its 66th Session (April 23-25) in Rome to review recent agricultural commodity market developments and policy issues. The effects of biofuels - produced as a reaction against high oil prices which are the real cause of temporary increases in commodity prices - and the role of rapidly growing economies are the main subjects up for analysis.

New factors affecting commodity prices

Many agricultural commodity prices have increased recently, but while this is mainly the result of market fundamentals FAO warns that a number of new factors affecting commodity prices have become increasingly apparent. Among these are the impact of the rapid economic growth of China and India and the effect of crude oil prices on those agricultural products that can be used to produce biofuels. According to the FAO, despite the recent increases in commodity prices the long-term trend is still downward and short-term fluctuations are still significant.

Trade talks could have positive effect
The Committee will also review recent trade policy developments, particularly the resumption of the Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

FAO highlighted the need in the Doha Round “to put in place effective instruments to allay the fears of some developing countries that they might suffer as a result of further global trade liberalization.”

FAO’s Deputy Director-General David Harcharik said in opening remarks: “Trade policy reform aimed at providing a fair, market-oriented, global trading system and at reducing trade-distorting subsidies and trade barriers can make a positive contribution to trade and development and the reduction of poverty and hunger. The UN Millennium Declaration committed to an open, equitable, rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory trading system, and multilateral trade negotiations provide the most promising route to achieve this.”

Trade policy reform is no panacea for poor countries

However, FAO warned in a recent report that trade policy reform is not a panacea, and the gains from freer trade will not be evenly distributed either between developing countries or within individual countries.

The Committee will examine the latest position in the WTO Doha trade negotiations and study a range of topical issues – notably special products, special safeguards and aid for trade.

When final documents are available, we will report back on the findings of the CCP.

More information:

FAO: FAO Committee on Commodities to review impact of oil prices and biofuels - Appropriate trade policy reform can lead to poverty reduction - April 23, 2007.

FAO Economic and Social Development Department, Trade and Markets division.

FAO Committee on Commodity Problems, 66th Session, April 23-25.

GreenPrices - Green Energy in Europe: FAO: influence biofuels on food prices temporary - April 23, 2007.

Article continues

FAO and UN experts agree: biofuels can boost development in poor South

Interesting news for the Biopact: the world's top international agriculture experts who met for three days at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) headquarters in Rome to consider the environmental and food security impact of the rapidly-expanding bioenergy industry (earlier post) have confirmed once again that governments could use bioenergy as a positive force for rural development. Despite a fierce and at times uninformed campaign by some environmentalist groups, the top scientists say that, if managed well, bioenergy could promote something akin to an agricultural “renaissance” in some developing countries where biofuels can be produced profitably. This conclusion reaffirms the idea, formulated by the FAO before the global rush to biofuels occured, that bioenergy can be key in the fight against hunger.

Brazilian Professor Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira says: "Now, it's time to plant energy" [*.mp3].

“It was the first time that experts in bioenergy, food security and the environment came together to discuss the important linkages between those sectors,” said Alexander Müller, Head of FAO’s Natural Resources Management and Environment Department, commenting on last week’s crucial meeting.

"While there is legitimate concern among some groups that bioenergy could compromise food security and cause environmental damage, it can also be an important tool for improving the well-being of rural people if governments take into account environmental and food security concerns,” he said.

Key role for governments
“In food security terms, bioenergy only makes sense if we know where the food-insecure populations are located and what they need to improve their livelihoods. Environmentally, we must make sure that both large- and small-scale producers of bioenergy fully take into account both the negative and positive impacts,” Müller said. “There is a key role for governments to play in setting standards of performance. International organizations such as FAO can also have a major role in providing a neutral forum and policy support,” he noted. “We need an international commitment to make sure that food security is not impaired and that natural resources are used sustainably,” he added.

Last week’s three-day meeting, which was attended by experts from around the world plus specialists from FAO and other organizations, agreed that FAO’s International Bioenergy Platform should promptly draw up a series of guidelines for Governments and potential investors.

Landscape mosaics
Some experts considered biofuel production could benefit the environment and increase food security if smallholders farmed biocrops and biomass as a source of energy for themselves and their local communities or contributed to commercial production for national or international markets:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Some biocrops or other feedstock are best produced in landscape “mosaics” where they are grown alongside food crops and other vegetation, those experts said. Biofuel areas within these mosaics could provide other valuable benefits such as windbreaks, restoration of degraded areas, habitats for native biodiversity and a range of ecosystem services, they added.

Agricultural Renaissance
Joseph Schmidhuber, Senior Economist with FAO’s Agricultural Development and Economics Division, told the meeting that, if managed well, bioenergy could promote something akin to an agricultural “renaissance” in some developing countries where biofuels can be produced profitably.

Impact of the new bioenergy market on food security could be negative or positive, depending, at the country level, on whether the economy involved was a net exporter or importer of food and energy, Schmidhuber said. The same held true at household level, indicating that the rural landless and the urban poor were most-at risk. Special measures will be needed to protect both countries and groups, he added.

New data
The experts agreed to accelerate development of tools for analyzing the food security and environmental impacts of bioenergy production as well as to strengthen data and information needed by countries to assess their bioenergy potential and identify hot spots. Bioenergy crops that compete with land and water for food production should not be grown in areas facing food security challenges, they emphasized.

“The objective is bioenergy that is environmentally sustainable and socially equitable,” they added. “It is a challenge that can and must be faced.” Existing famine early-warning systems that include household food security assessments and hunger surveys are now well-established and can assist in understanding the risks to vulnerable populations.

“Bioenergy holds out enormous opportunities for farmers, especially in the developing world,” said Gustavo Best, FAO’s Senior Energy Coordinator, “but there are dangers too."

More information:
FAO: Bioenergy could drive rural development - Experts weigh bio-power impact - April 23, 2007.

The UN's International Bioenergy Platform (IBEP)

The FAO's Natural Resources Management and Environment Department.

FAO: FAO sees major shift to bioenergy - April 25, 2006

FAO: Bioenergy, key to the fight against hunger - April 14, 2005.

Article continues

Researchers propose Green Biofuels Index

The debate over whether biofuels like corn based ethanol are better for the environment than fossil fuels has left many consumers confused and unsure where to fill their gas tanks.

Much of this confusion could be eliminated with a biofuels rating system that would reflect the positive or negative environmental impacts of a particular fuel, according to a group of University of California, Berkeley, researchers. Such a ratings system would take into account all environmental aspects of biofuels processing and production, from the way biofuel crops are tilled and fertilized to the kinds of energy - coal, natural gas or biomass, for example - used to process them.

Such a system would not only help consumers make decisions about where to fuel up but, perhaps more importantly, stimulate competition among fuel producers to market the greenest fuels possible, driving the less-green biofuels out of the marketplace in favor of ones that really serve the planet.

Such a labeling system would reveal, for example, that a fuel such as ethanol varies widely in its environmental merit depending on its production history, according to co-author Michael O'Hare, UC Berkeley professor of public policy. Some ethanol in current use is not much better, or is even worse, for the environment than gasoline, while other ethanol is beneficial.

Farrell, O'Hare and colleagues in UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group and in the Goldman School of Public Policy disseminated a research report on the issue today in hopes of stimulating discussion around the nation on how best to formulate such a labeling system. Called "Creating Markets for Green Biofuels: Measuring and Improving Environmental Performance" [*.pdf] the study was partially supported by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Science Foundation's Climate Decision Making Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Their report presents several case studies of specific biofuel production pathways using a lifecycle analysis of the inputs to feedstock production and processing, but excluding market-mediated effects.

To create the 'Green Fuel Index' and to implement it, the researchers recommend four steps: 1. Measure the global warming intensity of biofuels ('greenhouse gas emissions balance'). 2. Measure the overall environmental performance of biomass feedstock production. 3. Develop and implement a combined Green Biofuels Index. 4. Research better practices, assessment tools, and assurance methods.

An example of outcomes of measuring the environmental performance of some biofuels can be found in the table (click to enlarge):
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"We think it's feasible to design a workable and effective ratings system for green biofuels today with the types of information that many farmers and many biofuel production facilities already collect," said study co-author Alex Farrell, assistant professor of energy and resources and director of the campus's Transportation Sustainability Research Center. "The American biofuels industry can produce much greener biofuels than they do today, and I think they can do so at reasonable prices and at a profit."

"Biofuels link markets in fuel, food and land in quite complicated ways, and there are no rules about how to judge the environmental and global warming impacts of producing and processing these fuels," said Farrell, who was appointed this week to an international roundtable to draft global standards for sustainable biofuels production and processing. "As these technologies get better and cheaper, there will be competition for use of land, whether for food or wilderness. This is inherently a problem of biofuels. A discussion of biofuel labeling could help the domestic debate about how to develop biofuels."

The report lays out a range of possible options for a Green Biofuels Index, from voluntary labeling akin to the "organic" food label, to mandatory labeling like today's nutrition information, to more stringent government regulations like those required by renewable portfolio standards, which mandate that a state generate a percentage of its electricity from renewable sources. While Farrell thinks a star system, like the Michelin stars, would be more flexible than a gold-silver-bronze medal system, he stressed that any system could take into account the issues consumers seem most concerned about.

"I think people understand that energy is a product that has lots of environmental implications, and if they had the choice to know what was good or bad, I bet they would like to know that," said Farrell. "It's quite likely that, even if it were required as part of regulation, fuel makers and distributors could develop their own brand and their own marketing strategies around how green their fuel is, using the type of information this will provide."

Today, consumers in the United States have only a few biofuel choices: E85 ethanol, 95 percent of which comes from corn; biodiesel, which comes primarily from soybeans but also from canola and sunflower oils and waste cooking oil or grease; and what's called renewable diesel, which is made from biomass injected into the petroleum diesel process. But Farrell predicts that other fuels will soon reach the market, including biobutanol and synthetic diesel, which is made entirely from biomass.

New research, such as that planned by the Energy Biosciences Institute soon to be established at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with $500 million in funding from BP, could produce much greener biofuels, Farrell noted.

If biofuels with the same chemical identity can be distinguished by a rating system such as the authors propose, "markets for green biofuels would stimulate a new wave of innovation, creating high-value and truly green biofuels, and enhancing energy security by diversifying our energy sources," they wrote.

The UC Berkeley group urges environmental, agricultural and regulatory agencies to join forces with local, state and national governments to develop this Green Biofuels Index, and that funding agencies should research ways to measure the environmental performance of biofuels, such as their impacts on global warming or farmland.

Co-authors on the paper also include graduate students Brian T. Turner and Richard J. Plevin of UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group. Turner also is with the Goldman School of Public Policy. Plevin was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Biopact reaction
We will soon analyse the report more in-depth, but our first reaction is that this is indeed one of the possible ways forward to create a 'sustainable' biofuels industry. Bioethanol produced in Brazil, for example, would clearly fall in the greenest category and receive most stars (earlier post).

However, there are some fundamental problems associated with such an index.

First of all, as it is proposed by the UC Berkeley researchers, the index only looks at environmental sustainability criteria. Even though this is an important measure, it says nothing about the historic opportunity for countries in the South to use biofuel production as a development tool to create prosperity. Given ever-increasing oil prices - and taking 'Peak Oil' seriously - developing countries can produce biofuels for their domestic market to offset some of the negative effects of high oil prices (now and certainly in the future). Biofuels are a buffer against high energy prices, regardless of whether they are produced sustainably or not. The strongly negative effects of energy insecurity and high prices on the economies of developing countries - which all have a 'high energy intensity' - is well known. Biofuels can mitigate some of these effects and allow for smooth development even if oil supply crises emerge.

However, since domestic fuel consumption in many of these countries is still extremely low compared to that of the industrialised countries, they can also look at exports, after having satisfied their own needs.

Over 50 countries in the South have the capacity to produce enough food for their growing populations, while at the same time growing such a large amount of energy crops that they can replace all oil imports and have enough to spare to supply world markets. This capacity promises a large new export opportunity, that would result in revenues that can be invested in crucial development sectors (poverty alleviation, infrastructure, rural development, education, health care, etc...).

Now if markets in the North decide to apply stringent environmental sustainability criteria that effectively were to act as a non-tariff barrier to this export opportunity, then markets in the North would be responsible for a missed opportunity for development in the South.

This scenario would then call for a compensation mechanism. Many developing countries, like Malaysia and Indonesia, have already gone so far as to say that too strictly defined environmental criteria are a kind of 'green imperialism'. They have publicly made statements like "the West has destroyed 98% of its environment which allowed it to develop and industrialise, and now it wants to stop us from doing so, without compensating us for it." This point must be taken seriously.

Major development organisations (amongst them the UN) agree to the pragmatic and realistic principle which says that developing countries have the fundamental right to develop in a sovereign way. The 'sustainable development' paradigm is a noble starting point, but if it is to be implemented in the South as well, it requires considerable amounts of financial support from the North. There are no signs that the industrialised countries are really committed to offer this support (e.g. only a handful of them are on track to reach the goal of dedicating 0.7% of their GDP to international development aid. They made this committment years ago. They have until 2010. Analysts are confident that the vast majority will not reach this promised target.)

In case the North does introduce a stringent environmental sustainability index for biofuels, many different scenarios can be imagined as regards to the actions and positions in the South. If deemed too strict, biofuel producers may simply switch away from the markets they currently prefer (the EU/US/Japan) and supply countries that do not adhere to the same criteria (e.g. it will be extremely difficult to convince a country like China to introduce such an index.) A global effort is clearly needed, in order to ensure that biofuels everywhere are produced sustainably, and that they do not negate the opportunity for the South to tap into a new opportunity for trade, energy security and post-Peak Oil preparedness.

Secondly, the index as it is currently proposed by the researchers does not take into account more practical 'social' sustainability factors. Biofuels can be produced in a way that enhances social inequality, pushes small farmers out of the market, perpetuates a system of seasonal labor and causes conflicts over land-ownership. But they can also be anchored into a context of true social responsibility and be a weapon in the fight against poverty. Brazil's Social Fuel Seal is one example of how social sustainability can be measured and assured. The index should take this aspect of biofuel production into account as well.

Thirdly, such an index would have difficulties tracking the sustainability of imported biofuel feedstocks, unless it is implemented globally. This will require a concerted effort and is not likely to succeed, for the reasons outlined above. The South will only commit to such criteria if it is seriously compensated for the missed opportunity of developing in an 'unsustainable' manner. Developing countries will ask for a kind of compensation that takes into account the manner in which the wealthy, industrialised North has developed through time, namely by destroying its own environment totally (e.g. deforestation in Europe and North America, which since the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution until today, fueled their development) and by relying on cheap and abundant oil resources that are now being depleted. It would not be too difficult to calculate this 'historic' bonus the West took for itself, and to transfer it to the South. Without such a concrete transfer, expressed in monetary terms, developing countries will rightfully claim that the Green Fuels Index is a tool of 'green imperialism' and refuse to adhere to it.

More information:
Brian T. Turner, Richard J. Plevin, Michael O’Hare, "Creating Markets for Green Biofuels: Measuring and improving environmental performance" [*.pdf] UC Berkeley, Transportation Sustainability Research Center, Research Report UCB-ITS-TSRC-RR-2007-1, April 2007.

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