Sunday, November 30, 2008

Modest, sustainable approach to biofuels development

It's difficult to envision an end to the biofuels controversy in the foreseeable future. Advocates see biofuels in its various incarnations (biodiesel, corn/soy-based ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, etc.) as an important, here-and-now response to foreign oil dependence and climate change. Opponents still see this alternative as an unacceptable fuel-for-food trade off with potentially devastating impacts for many developing countries.

It is possible that a sustainable strategy for biofuels development exisits. It appears to be a niche role that will be complemented with other alternatives -- particularly plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). However, exactly how this could eventually work given the very different infrastructure needs remains unclear. (GW)

Biofuels Conference Looks Toward Global Market Development

International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development

November 21, 2008

Issues such as trade, standards and technical requirements were tackled at a recent biofuels development conference held in Brazil - one of the leading biofuels producers in Latin America.

The conference - entitled Biofuels as a Driving Force of Sustainable Development - hosted by the Brazilian government from 17-21 November in São Paulo - focused primarily on the challenges and opportunities of biofuels. Specific issues discussed include energy security, sustainability of biofuel production and use, agricultural and industrial processing, technical specifications and standards, international trade, and its sometimes controversial relationship to climate change.

Representatives from 92 countries, as well as non-governmental and private sector organisations, attended the conference. While no formal declaration was adopted, the summaries of the plenary sessions suggest that participants agree on several statements. For example, participants felt a 10 percent share of biofuels in transport worldwide is feasible and that the use of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels is a desirable goal. As such, biofuels can contribute significantly to combating climate change. Regarding production, however, not all countries are in a position to produce them in a sustainable manner, and a successful model to produce biofuels cannot be identically replicated in different locations without taking into account local realities.

On the controversial issue of sustainability criteria, conference participants felt that these must be “scientifically and transparently” set. In their view, the current food, energy and financial crisis provide an opportunity to revise standards of production and consumption and boost the development of renewable and sustainable energy sources. Looking at developing countries specifically, meeting participants agreed that they can benefit greatly from the modernisation of agriculture, especially in the area of biofuels. Significant opportunities for the production of biofuels in arid and degraded land, especially in Africa, were identified.

Regarding trade, participants felt a number of measures were required to create a global market for biofuels, including their classification as environmental goods under the WTO and the reduction of tariffs, agricultural subsidies and other trade barriers. A global market for biofuels could contribute positively to combat climate change and ensure energy security, they said.

According to the UN Centre for Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) Acting Deputy Secretary General, Lakshmi Puri, Brazil’s biofuels development strategy should be seen as a model.

“We analysed the Brazilian model so as to see in which countries it might be reproduced,” Puri said. “The use of biofuels as we imagine it is a win, win, win strategy. The environment wins, the commerce wins, and development wins too.”

Puri insisted that that the biofuels sector represents a new and dynamic opportunity - particularly for poorer nations. “What we are doing is try and help developing countries. We help nations to choose the correct model, and all of that needs to go hand in hand with food security.”

During the closing of the Conference, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called on industrialised countries to support biofuels production in land rich but cash poor countries - particularly in Africa. However, he was careful not to overstate its importance.

“Biofuels are far from being a panacea, the solution to all social, environmental and economic problems,” Lula cautioned. “Nevertheless, they may help us reconcile development and respect to the environment.”

Additional information

The International Conference on Biofuels website is available at

ICTSD Reporting; “Brazil’s President Lula Closes International Biofuels Conference, Calls for Investments in New Energy Sources,” CLIMATE-L.ORG, 25 November 2008; “Brazil is a model in biofuels strategy”, ANBA, 20 November 2008.


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