Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The biofuels debate intensifies

As we near global consensus on the reality of climate change, the focus has shifted to figuring out how best to respond to this threat. which in turn has intensified the debate as to whether or not biofuels is an appropriate response. Two major questions: How a drive to produce biofuels impact forest and agricultural production in the developing world? If such a strategy was deemed sustainable and a decision was made to move forward, who would control the development?

I recently came across a website for a group called Biopact, whose goal is to

…use the potential for the production of bioenergy in the developing world, and most notably in sub-Saharan Africa, as a lever to create a new development paradigm in which access to energy, energy security and sustainability play key roles.

But a number of high barriers exist that make it difficult for developing countries to initiate such an energy transition. This is why we think the European Union must play a key role in this process. The Biopact therefore tries to make a case for a joint initiative on renewable energy, in which the EU couples its own development, economic and energy policies to those of sub-Saharan Africa, with bioenergy forming the core.

The following essay was posted on the Biopact website. (GW)

UN environment chief backs EU's biofuels plan, urges environmentalists to drop 'simplistic' views

April 21, 2007

The UN’s top environment official has backed an ambitious European Union plan to require the blending of plant-based biofuels into road fuels despite what he calls "simplistic" critiques by some environmentalists that this will automatically lead to increased deforestation in south-east Asia and Brazil.

Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Prog­ramme (UNEP), said on Thursday that biofuels were needed to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels. Increased consumer awareness, he said, would eventually force producers of palm oil and soya used in biofuels to adopt more sustainable production methods, while other biofuel feedstocks with a far lower environmental footprint [sorghum, cassava, jatropha, sweet potatoes, sugarcane and second generation biofuels] will be adopted more widely in the future.

The top expert said curbing greenhouse gas emissions by using biofuels is one of the most effective means to fight climate change and to reduce poverty in the South. Not investing in green fuels may result in far bigger ecological damages than some of the environmentalists think. Dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to the economy of poor countries and fuels poverty, which results in increased pressures on the environment. Biofuels can turn this situation around.

The top environment chief of the UN, who attended a meeting on business and the environment in Singapore on Thursday, suggested these environmentalists' efforts to curb biofuel development reflected a “sledgehammer” approach and were based on “simplistic” views.

One of the returning points of critique made by some environmentalist groups is that the production of some biofuel feedstocks (palm oil, soya) leads to deforestation. But Mr Steiner said there were multiple causes for the burning of forest land, including clearing space for agriculture, and that biofuels should not be solely blamed for the problem.

Plant-based biofuels have been promoted to help fight global warming, and south-east Asian countries, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, are expanding production of palm oil as a main ingredient in their production.

Palm oil plantation companies have been blamed for burning down forests in Indonesian Sumatra and Borneo and so contributing to a growing annual smog problem in the region. A recent UK-funded report found Indonesia was the world’s third-largest carbon emitter behind the US and China, largely because of the forest fires.

Even though these findings are scientifically incorrect, because they do not take into account the carbon sequestered in palm oil plantations which neutralise the carbon emitted by forest clearance, Mr Steiner acknowledged Indonesia could do more to protect forests and promote sustainable development. But he said biofuel consumers in Europe and elsewhere were becoming aware of the problem and would demand that biofuel producers be certified as engaging in sustainable production.

The UN Environment Chief predicted that biofuel producers and governments would co-operate in establishing international standards to certify sustainable production. A group of palm oil producers recently formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to set up a certification process, while palm oil producers in south-east Asia and soya producers in Brazil have established partnerships with environmental groups to develop sustainable criteria.


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