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    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.

    A Scania OmniCity double-decker bus to be deployed by Transport for London (TfL) will be powered by ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane, TfL Coordinator Helen Woolston told a bioethanol conference in London. The bus will join a fleet of seven hybrid diesel-electric buses currently running in London, where TfL plans to introduce 50 more hybrid buses by the end of 2008. EEMS Online - April 24, 2007.

    Virgin Atlantic plans to fly a 747 jumbojet on a mix of 60% biofuel and 40% kerosene in 2008. Sir Richard Branson is collaborating with Boeing to achieve this milestone in aviation history. He already hinted at the fact that the biofuels "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." More details to be announced soon. Telegraph - April 24, 2007.

    A top executive of General Motors, vice-chairman Bob Lutz, says the US should launch a 'Manhattan Project' for biofuels to make a 'wholesale switch' within five years. Kentucky.com - April 24, 2007.

    Canada's new government launches a C$200 million 'Ecoagriculture Biofuels Capital Initiative' aimed at helping agricultural producers construct or expand transportation biofuel production facilities. Government of Canada - April 24, 2007.

    Russian oil company Lukoil reportedly installed production facilities for obtaining biofuels in its refinery Neftochim in the coastal city of Bourgas. Lukoil has over 2500 oil stations in Europe, the largest number of which are located in Bulgaria, which joined the EU this year. Sofia Echo - April 22, 2007.

    The government of the Indian state of Haryana approves three small-scale (1MW) biomass gasification projects, while the Haryana Renewable Energy Development Agency (HAREDA) identifies seven industrial sectors it will help to adopt the biomass gasification technology to meet their captive thermal and electrical requirements. Economic Times - April 21, 2007.

    The Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) is planning to build a coconut oil biodiesel plant in Ivisan, Capiz (a province in the Western Visayas region) by the middle of this year in response to the growing demand for biodiesel. News Today (Iloilo City) - April 20, 2007.

    Scientists working for Royal Nedalco (involved in cellulosic ethanol production), the Delft University of Technology and a firm called Bird Engineering have found a fungus in elephant dung that helped them produce a yeast strain which can efficiently ferment xylose into ethanol. The researchers consider this to be a breakthrough and see widespread application of the yeast within 5 years. More info to follow as details emerge. Scientific American - April 19, 2007.

    As part of its 'Le dessous des cartes' magazine, Europe's culture TV channel ARTE airs a documentary about the geopolitics of sustainable transport tonight, at 10.20 pm CET. Readers outside of Europe can catch it here. ARTE - April 18, 2007.

    Spain's diversified company the Ferry Group is investing €50 million into a biomass plantation in new EU-memberstate Bulgaria. The project will see the establishment of a 8000ha plantation of hybrid paulownia trees that will be used for the production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik, Bulgaria - April 18, 2007.

    Bioprocess Control signs agreement with Svensk Biogas and forms closer ties with Swedish Biogas International. Bioprocess Control develops high-tech applications that optimise the commercial production of biogas. It won Sweden's prestigious national clean-tech innovations competition MiljöInnovation 2007 for its 'Biogas Optimizer' that accelerates the biogas production process and ensures greater process stability. NewsDesk Sweden - April 17, 2007.

    A joint Bioenergy project of Purdue University and Archer Daniels Midland Company has been selected to receive funding by the U.S. Department of Energy to further the commercialization of highly-efficient yeast which converts cellulosic materials into ethanol through fermentation. ADM - April 17, 2007.

    Researchers at Iowa State University and the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Services (ARS) have found that glycerin, a biodiesel by-product, is as effective as conventional corn-soymeal diets for pigs. AllAboutFeed - April 16, 2007.

    U.S. demand for uranium may surge by a third amid a revival in atomic power projects, increasing concern that imports will increase and that limited supplies may push prices higher, the Nuclear Energy Institute says. Prices touched all time highs of US$113 a pound in an auction last week by a U.S producer amid plans by China and India to expand their nuclear power capacity. International Herald Tribune - April 16, 2007.

    Taiwan mandates a 1% biodiesel and ethanol blend for all diesel and gasoline sold in the country, to become effective next year. By 2010, the ratio will be increased to 2%. WisconsinAg Connection - April 16, 2007.

    Vietnam has won the prestigious EU-sponsored Energy Globe award for 2006 for a community biogas program, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development announced. ThanhNien News - April 13, 2007.

    Given unstable fossil fuel prices and their negative effects on the economy, Tanzania envisages large-scale agriculture of energy crops Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives, Mr Christopher Chiza has said. A 600 hectare jatropha seed production effort is underway, with the seeds expected to be distributed to farmers during the 2009/2010 growing season. Daily News (Dar es Salaam) - April 12, 2007.

    Renault has announced it will launch a flex-fuel version of its Logan in Brazil in July. Brazilian autosales rose 28% to 1,834,581 in 2006 from 2004. GreenCarCongress - April 12, 2007.

    Chevron and Weyerhouser, one of the largest forest products companies, are joining forces to research next generation biofuels. The companies will focus on developing technology that can transform wood fiber and other nonfood sources of cellulose into economical, clean-burning biofuels for cars and trucks. PRNewswire - April 12, 2007.

    BioConversion Blog's C. Scott Miller discusses the publication of 'The BioTown Source Book', which offers a very accessible introduction to the many different bioconversion technologies currently driving the bioenergy sector. BioConversion Blog - April 11, 2007.

    China's State Forestry Administration (SFA) and the China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Import & Export Corp., Ltd. (COFCO) have signed a framework agreement over plans to cooperatively develop forest bioenergy resources, COFCO announced on its web site. Interfax China - April 11, 2007.

    The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock of El Salvador is speeding up writing the country's biofuels law in order to take advantage of the US-Brazil cooperation agreement which identified the country as one where projects can be launched fairly quickly. The bill is expected to be presented to parliament in the coming weeks. El Porvenir - April 11, 2007.

    ConocoPhillips will establish an eight-year, $22.5 million research program at Iowa State University dedicated to developing technologies that produce biofuels. The grant is part of ConocoPhillips' plan to create joint research programs with major universities to produce viable solutions to diversify America's energy sources. Iowa State University - April 11, 2007.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

UN publishes its long-awaited report on bioenergy - opportunities and risks

The worldwide transition to biofuels and bioenergy offers many opportunities, but also involves a number of trade-offs and risks, the United Nations says in its long-awaited and most comprehensive review of the likely impacts of the emerging bioenergy market, which was released today.

The document entitled “Sustainable Energy: A Framework for Decision Makers” was prepared by UN-Energy, a group of all UN agencies, programmes and organizations working in the area of energy. It was sponsored by the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (earlier post). The UN report highlights many of the points elaborated here at the Biopact and refers to some of our analyses.

In general, the study acknowledges that biofuels can go many ways and that outcomes depend on local circumstances: if produced uncarefully, they can threaten the environment, biodiversity and the food security of people, but if projects are implemented wisely, they offer major opportunities to fight poverty and climate change, and to boost the incomes and food security of millions of subsistence farmers in the South.

Catastrophic effect of high oil prices on poor countries
The report is unambiguous about the dramatic effects of high oil prices on the development of poor economies, saying "Recent oil price increases have had devastating effects on many of the world's poor countries, some of which now spend as much as six times as much on fuel as they do on health. Others spend twice the money on fuel as they do on poverty alleviation. And in still others, the foreign exchange drain from higher oil prices is five times the gain from recent debt relief."

At a time when energy analysts predict a period of unpredictable oil markets, with prices dependent on developments in some of the world's least stable regions, fossil fuel dependence has become a major risk for many developing nations. Biofuels may come to the rescue, since "in such national settings, the macroeconomic benefits of channeling fuel revenues into poor, rural economies could be substantial."

The report is optimistic about the technical potential for liquid biofuels: "The gradual move away from oil has begun. Over the next 15 to 20 years, we may see biofuels providing a full 25 percent of the world's energy needs".

Growing opportunities
The analysis notes that the market for biofuel feedstocks offers new and rapidly growing opportunities for agricultural producers. “Modern bioenergy could make energy services more widely and cheaply available in remote rural areas, supporting productivity growth in agriculture and other sectors with positive implications for food availability and access”.

Modern bioenergy can also help to meet the needs of the 1.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to electricity in their homes, and the 2.4 billion who rely on straw, dung and other traditional biomass fuels to meet their energy requirements. Overall, in taking decisions, policy makers “should ensure that food security considerations are given priority,” the report stresses.

Bringing down trade barriers
The document is critical of tariff barriers currently erected against ethanol imports by some countries. Impeding imports of more efficiently produced biofuels from abroad, such as sugarcane based ethanol and palm oil based biodiesel, while simultaneously mandating the blending of biofuel with fossil fuels at home could divert more land than necessary from food production, it said:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Involving farmers and mixed production
As to the implications for agriculture in general, the report notes that "at their best, liquid biofuel products can enrich farmers by helping to add value to their products. But at their worst, biofuel programmes can result in concentration of ownership that could drive the world’s poorest farmers off their land and into deeper poverty."

Most likely, "the biofuel economy of the future will be characterized by a mix of production types, some dominated by large, capital-intensive businesses, some marked by farmer co-ops that compete with large companies ... and some where liquid biofuels are produced on a smaller scale and used locally." "Regardless of the scale of production, however, one thing is clear: the more involved farmers are in the production, processing and use of biofuels, the more likely they are to share in the benefits."

Kitchen killer
On health, UN-Energy says that modern bioenergy held out the promise of dramatically reducing the death toll caused in developing countries by the “kitchen killer” – smoke inhalation from cooking with fuelwood or traditional biomass, which is responsible for more fatalities each year than malaria (earlier post). Women could also be freed from the drudgery of collecting firewood, thus providing them with greater opportunities for education and employment.

Assessing impacts
“The economic, environmental and social impacts of bioenergy development must be assessed carefully before deciding if and how rapidly to develop the industry and what technologies, policies and investment strategies to pursue,” the report says.

Purpose of the study is to help ensure that “the energy needs of people are met and the local and global environment is adequately protected,” said UN-Energy Chair Mats Karlsson of the World Bank. “We hope to use the collective strength of the UN system to affect change”.

Key policy issues
The report points out the many benefits of bioenergy systems in relation to poverty alleviation, access to energy services, rural development and rural infrastructure. It reviews the likely impact of bioenergy in terms of food security, climate change, biodiversity and natural resources, employment and trade. It also identifieds the vital points decision makers need to consider and stresses that, “unless new policies are enacted to protect threatened lands, secure socially acceptable land use, and steer bioenergy development in a sustainable direction overall, the environmental and social damage could in some cases outweigh the benefits”.

In an apparent reference to the use of some grains as a biofuel feedstock, UN-Energy noted, "in general, crops that require high fossil energy inputs (such as conventional fertilizer) and valuable (farm) land, and that have relatively low energy yields per hectare, should be avoided." This means most biofuels made in the US and Europe are not deemed to be viable.

Sustainable bioenergy use
Moreover, even “sustainably"-produced energy crops could have negative impacts if they replaced primary forests, “resulting in large releases of carbon from the soil and forest biomass that negate any benefits from biofuels for decades,” the report said.

To minimize greenhouse gas emissions associated with bioenergy production, policy makers needed to safeguard virgin grasslands, primary forests and other lands with high nature value, UN-Energy recommended. Governments should also encourage the use of sustainable bioenergy production and management practices. An international certification scheme, including greenhouse gas verification, should be set up to ensure that bioenergy products, and biofuels in particular, meet environmental standards all the way from fields to fuel tanks.

On food security, the report said that the availability of adequate food supplies could be threatened by biofuel production as land, water and other resources were diverted from food production. Similarly, food access could be compromised by higher basic food prices resulting from increased bioenergy feedstock demand, thus driving the poor and food insecure into even greater poverty.

We will be analysing the report more in-depth soon and report further on some of its findings and recommendations.

More information
UN Energy: Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers - May 8, 2007.

FAO: UN weighs impact of bioenergy - Comprehensive report offers policy framework for decision makers - May, 8, 2007.

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

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

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Tropical plants may adapt more easily to climate change than thought

As rainfall patterns change due to global warming, tropical plants may acclimate more easily than commonly thought, new research shows. The findings are highly important for countries in the South who are set to become biofuel producers, relying on tropical energy crops, and for the livelihoods of millions of smallholders in the developing world who make a living from agro-forestry.

Scientists from Princeton University and from the University of Florida have found that plants in tropical Hawaii have the ability to adapt to big changes in rainfall in at least one major respect - how they get nutrients. The plants largely rely on one form of the vital nutrient nitrogen in moist areas. But in the still wetter terrain that characterizes some rainforests, they switch to another form of nitrogen that becomes more available in those conditions.

The findings, reported in paper set to appear this week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, present a notable exception to the commonly held idea that tropical plants are highly specialized in their own little environmental niches - and thus very sensitive to disturbances of those niches.

The results of the study could be good news for the plants because, according to the scientific consensus of the IPCC's Working Group II on the impacts of climate change on the environment, global warming is expected to alter rainfall patterns in the tropics (earlier post). But it comes with a caveat: nutrient uptake is only one of many ingredients in plant life. Other unrelated changes that accompany a warming climate could still affect plant distribution and growth, such as those that hold sway over pollinators, insect predators or invasive plants.

Flexibility in nutrient uptake
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient that plants must absorb from the soil to survive. Most land plants outside the tropics appear to have evolved to rely on just one of three common sources of nitrogen: nitrate (NO3-), ammonium (NH4+), or dissolved organic nitrogen (DON). As a result of this limitation, they usually inhabit "niches" defined largely by the available nitrogen source. When that source crashes for any reason - often because of shifts in climate - the plants cannot adapt, with potentially disastrous consequences for natural ecosystems.

However, tropical species appear to be far more adaptable than their temperate kin when it comes to their nitrogen needs, the researchers found. When confronted with shifts in nitrogen availability, these plants simply "flip a switch" and use whatever is handy.

"These plants should be able to do OK in terms of their nitrogen nutrition, even with the climate changing," said Ted Schuur, a UF assistant professor of ecology and one of four authors of the paper:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"But of course, we only studied one group of organisms and one mechanism in this study" and plants depend on many different mechanisms to coexist, some of which may also change with changing rainfall.

The scientists researched plant growth at six sites on the slopes of Mount Haleakala, a volcano on the island of Maui. The sites were ideal because they share the same species, elevations and soils but have vastly different rainfall. The wettest rainforest sites receive an astonishing 196 inches of rain annually, while the driest sites in this study get about 79 inches.

"That's the range of rainfall you might find across the entire tropics, but that would usually be over hundreds or thousands of kilometers," Schuur said. "I can visit all of these forest sites in a single day."

The scientists analyzed nitrogen isotopes in the soil and leaf samples of four plant species at each site. They learned that drier soils contained more nitrogen in the form of nitrate, while wetter soils contained more nitrogen in the form of ammonia. Isotopic analysis of the plants revealed that they switched from nitrate to ammonia "abruptly, and in unison" once the rainfall reached a certain level.

"There's an abrupt change halfway through the rainfall gradient, and they all switch to this other form for their nutrition," Schuur said.

That's a surprise partly because of the uniformity of response, he said. Such uniformity sharply contrasts the conventional notion that tropical plant species coexist by adopting widely different strategies to getting what they need. At least with regard to nitrogen uptake, all the Hawaiian plants acted the same -- and at the same time.

"This does not support the idea that natural selection has caused species to diverge into highly specialized niches for nitrogen consumption," the PNAS paper says.

That's a positive sign considering that as the Earth warms, some areas of the tropics are widely expected to be wetter, some drier. So, at least one of dozens of variables that will change with precipitation changes - nutrient uptake - might not affect tropical plants. That said, plenty of others could, Schuur said.

More information:
Eurekalert: Scientists: As rainfall changes, tropical plants may acclimate - May, 7, 2007.

Eurekalert: Tropical plants go with the flow ... of nitrogen - May 7, 2007.

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Missouri House caps ethanol subsidies

Quicknote bioenergy subsidies
The US subsidizes its farmers and ethanol producers with billions each year. In combination with a tariff on imported ethanol, this creates a serious barrier to international biofuel trade. Countries with a large and efficient biofuel industry - most notably Brazil - have been calling for the US to abandon this lavish and market-distorting state funding, but to no avail.

Some in the US though are waking up to the reality that, indeed, importing biofuels from the South is not a bad idea: fuels made there are less costly, less environmentally damaging and have a far better energy and greenhouse gas balance than fuels produced in more temperate climates. Moreover, imports would benefit American consumers who are now forced to subsidize their own uncompetitive farmers, which costs them billions each year (earlier post).

The House of Representatives of the state of Missouri has now taken a first, small step in reducing these subsidies for ethanol producers (and especially for those who only use corn as a feedstock). New legislation would cap subsidies at US$10 million while expanding what the subsidy covers. Without that cap, the Department of Agriculture expects the current subsidy program would pay out US$15 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1, according to a legislative cost estimate.

Currently, only grain-produced ethanol qualifies, but the new legislation expands that to cover all agriculture and wood products used in bioenergy production. In the US, the reign of corn is not over yet, but at least legislators are beginning to open their eyes to the diversity of other production paths and feedstocks [entry ends here].
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Turning oil refineries into biorefineries: EU launches BIOCOUP project

Adapting existing mineral oil refineries for use as biorefineries is the goal of an ambitious new EU funded project called BIOCOUP.

BIOCOUP is supported by the European Commission through the Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development, under the theme 'Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems'. Its aim is to develop a chain of process steps, which would allow biomass feedstocks to be co-fed to a conventional oil refinery. Energy and oxygenated chemicals will be co-produced as well as bio-liquids. The overall innovation derives from the integration of bio-feedstock procurement with existing industries (energy, pulp and paper, food) and processing of upgraded biomass forms in existing mineral oil refineries.

The project has six sub-projects, each of which deals with critical areas of the proposed biomass utilization chain (diagram, click to enlarge). The overall objectives in each sub-project are:
  1. Biomass liquefaction and energy production: to reduce bio-oil production costs;
  2. Upgrading technologies: to develop de-oxygenation technology and scale it up to process development unit-scale
  3. Evaluation of upgraded bio-liquids in standard refinery units: to assess the viability of upgraded bio-liquids co-processing in a standard refinery
  4. Conversion to chemicals: to identify optimal recovery and fractionation strategies and technologies for the production of discrete target compounds from bio-liquids
  5. Scenario and life cycle analysis: to outline a low-risk, low-cost development path for the most promising biorefinery chains, a path based on stage-wise validation, demonstration and implementation
  6. Transversal activities: to optimise the impact of the project by a structured management and the efficient coordination of transversal activities (standardisation, exploitation and dissemination)
A comprehensive EU-wide consortium has been established in order to achieve these ambitious goals. It will also aim at finding solutions to secure energy supply in Europe and expects to enhance the competitiveness of European petrochemicals and chemicals industries:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

It is hoped that the project's efforts will lead to a greater choice of products such as transport fuels and green chemicals for consumers, as well as an acceptance of biomass as a sustainable source of energy. Project partners also expect that their work will lead to further technological development of biomass production processes.

'We believe there are good opportunities for both new companies because of new technologies being developed, and existing companies, because eventually the biorefinery will be integrated to existing industries,' says Yrjö Solantausta, coordinator of the project.

Moreover, BIOCOUP aims at addressing the following European strategic objectives:
  • Reduction of greenhouse gases – The proposed concept aims at an efficient utilisation of biomass thus securing cost effective reduction of greenhouse gases in the transportation sector;
  • Security of energy supply – The proposed concept uses European biomass as feedstock, and is aimed at increasing internal EU energy supply;
  • Develop cost-effective value chains for a range of biomass feedstocks – The project is utilising different biomass fractions in appropriate conversion stages for cost effective conversion;
  • Increase the market share of bio-fuels (alternative transportation fuels) – The proposed concept aims at increasing the market share of biofuels through reducing their production cost;
  • Production of “green products” through innovative processes - Increasing the competitiveness of the European Chemicals, and Petrochemicals industries.

More information:

BIOCOUP brochure [*.pdf].

CORDIS News: EU project puts the 'bio' in refineries - May 7, 2007.

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UNCTAD calls for greater use of biofuels worldwide, sees opportunity in the South

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), has called for wider acceptance and greater use of biofuels world-wide, as a fuel for transport and for power generation, saying that biofuels such as biodiesel, ethanol, biogas and solid biomass offer a promising alternative source of energy with many advantages.

The UN group says that due to increases and fluctuations in global oil prices and growing concern about global warming, policy makers and the public are more interested in finding alternatives to petrol than at any time since the mid-1970s.

Biofuels production is based on agricultural production and therefore many countries can produce them easily. According to the UNCTAD, the importance of energy for development can not be underestimated. Biofuels offer several major benefits:
  • reduction of oil import bills, which drain developing countries' treasuries (savings because of biofuels can be invested in poverty alleviation, development, social services and more efficient agriculture)
  • better energy security and diversification of energy sources
  • diversification of agricultural output allowing farmers to broaden their crop portfolio and break their dependence on single cash crops for which market prices have been low or sometimes even collapse (as has been the case for many crops, like coffee and cocoa - a situation that has resulted many times in mass poverty amongst smallholders)
  • accelerated development of rural areas
  • increased rural employment, and a curb in unsustainable internal migration from the countryside to the cities
  • the possibility to raise export earnings and boost the economy
  • mitigating climate change because biofuels are carbon-neutral and in some systems even carbon negative (see Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage)
Focus on the tropics and the subtropics
However, the UNCTAD stated that not all agricultural countries are best suited to produce biofuels. The economic viability of biofuels production depends on crop yields and the efficiency of the processing, it said. Producing ethanol from sugarcane is far more efficient than producing it from corn, both from the economic point of view and for achieving the greatest reduction of GHG emissions. The reason is that there is much more solar energy available for the plants in the tropics than in a temperate climate:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

As stated by Mr. Claude Mandil, head of the International Energy Agency which has been focusing on biofuels for many years, "the corn and wheat methods to produce ethanol are the worst imaginable, because they are only commercially viable with permanent subsidies and trade barriers, and their production requires a large amount of fossil fuels inputs, which is not the case for ethanol produced from sugar cane and other tropical biofuels" (earlier post). Later, the Chief Economist of the IEA too reiterated this message (earlier post).

They are part of a growing number of scientists, economists, development think tanks and international institutions who are calling for a 'biopact' of sorts, in which the industrialised countries open their markets for competitive and sustainable fuels from the developing world (earlier post).

While biofuels production using present processes in developed countries is not economically viable without subsidies and barriers to imports, biofuels production in developing countries (or more specifically in tropical and subtropical countries) offers interesting economic opportunities.

Careful management needed
However, UNCTAD notes there are also some concerns. These relate mainly to environmental issues such as deforestation (clearing virgin forest may be uneconomic and also results in the release of large amounts of carbon), worsening of water scarcity and loss of biodiversity. It is also argued that higher food prices resulting from competition over land between food and energy crops may raise issues of food security.

Proper management of land - Africa has hundreds of millions of hectares of currently unused non-forest land (earlier post and here) - can limit the extension of agricultural land and preserve primary forests. It should be mentioned that there is much more land available for biofuels production in developing countries, particularly Africa, than in developed countries, the UNCTAD added.

The UNCTAD has been quite active on the front of promoting biofuels in the developing world. Last year, it organised a high-level meeting on jatropha in West Africa, which resulted in committments of governments of the region to invest in the crop (earlier post), as well as a

More information:
AllAfrica: Africa: UNCTAD Seeks Focus On Bio-Fuels - May 2, 2007.

Biopact: Analysts see Africa as a potential global leader in biofuel production - November 22, 2006

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