Thursday, May 10, 2007

Energy security, food security and climate

The UN weighs in on the deepening debate over the sustainability of the widespread development of large-scale land-intensive biofuel production. (GW)

Energy Benefits and drawbacks of bio-energy must be considered

UN News Centre
May 10, 2007

As the demand for bio-fuels surges with over one billion people living without access to electricity, a new United Nations report released this week cautions that the world's energy needs must be met in a sustainable and environmentally sound manner.

The report from UN-Energy, an inter-agency body established to coordinate the world body's work in the realm of energy, is entitled "Sustainable Energy: A Framework for Decision Makers" and was funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The study is the first of its kind to examine the issue of bio-energy through the lens of nine issues, including poverty, health, food security, agriculture, climate change, finance and trade.

"We tried to create the framework to discuss it really all together because they need to be seen together," Gustavo Best, Vice Chair of UN-Energy, said at a press briefing for the report's launch in New York.

Bio-energy is produced from bio-fuels - solid fuels, biogas, liquid fuels such as bio-ethanol and bio-diesel - which come from crops such as sugar cane and beet, maize and energy grass or from fuel wood, charcoal, agricultural wastes and by-products, forestry residues, livestock manure and others.

The report underscores the many benefits that bio-energy provides in reducing poverty, improving access to energy and promoting rural development.

A surge in oil prices has led some of the world's poorest countries to spend six times as much on petroleum as they do on health care, and thus bio-energy "can create a lot of opportunities," Alexander Müller, Assistant Director-General of FAO, told reporters at the briefing.

"In this report, we provide a framework for the worldwide use of bio-energy, not only for the developed and industrialized world, for mitigation of climate change, but also for the poorest people to get access to a modern form of electricity."

However, it warns that "unless new policies are enacted to protect threatened lands, secure socially acceptable land use, and steer bio-energy development in a sustainable direction overall, the environmental and social damage could in some cases outweigh the benefits."

In the realm of food security, for example, price increases in major bio-fuel sources such as sugar, palm oil and soybeans could drive up the prices of basic foods.

These detrimental possibilities must be weighed against the tremendous benefits bio-energy stands to offer, Mr. Best observed.

"The bio-fuel market offers a new and fast-growing opportunity for agricultural producers and could contribute significantly to higher incomes and could support higher productivity growth in agriculture with positive implications for food availability, sustainability and access," he said.

Bio-energy could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives annually. In developing countries, the "kitchen killer" - or smoke inhalation from cooking with fuels such as coal and biomass, or wood, dung and crop residues - claims more lives annually than does malaria.

At the national level, suggestions made to decision makers include creating bio-energy policies that take into account availability, access, stability and utilization. It also recommends that governments weigh the economic and social costs of subsidizing bio-energy sources, in particular, liquid bio-fuels.

Meanwhile, the study proposes at the global level that signatories to the Conventions on Biological Diversity and on Combating Desertification consider opportunities for the sustainable cultivation and utilization of energy crops. It also suggests that greater emphasis is placed on promoting research on the social, scientific, technological, economic, policy and environmental facets of bio-energy development.

The report’s release coincided with the Commission on Sustainable Development - with long-term energy solutions, together with the interlinked issues of climate change, industrial development and air pollution, at the core of its agenda - which is in the midst of its two-week session. UN News Centre


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