Biofuels for transport
A world of trade-offs between the poor and the wealthy
Massive and unregulated large-scale production of biofuels would be potentially destructive for the environment, a threat to food security, and will affect sustainable development and the livelihoods of the poor. Biofuels should not distract industrialised countries from taking urgent mitigation action. Most developing countries with potential for the production of biofuels have limited capacities, institutions and resources to ensure compliance with existing environmental measures let alone addressing the new complex challenges that this emerging alternative brings More research and critical analysis is needed to assess the risks and essential trade offs that the poor will face vis á vis large scale biofuel development –especially for export- according to different ecosystems and socio-political contexts. Developing countries with potential for biofuel development require time and support to adopt, implement and enforce comprehensive sustainability criteria and indicators that consider all social, economic, environmental and political elements across different sectors to minimise risks and maximise benefit, especially for the poor. More research and demonstration is needed to prove the viability of biofuels as a sustainable community-based energy option vis á vis other already tested small renewable energies options
The increasing appeal of the “green” option
Without doubt poverty, access to energy and environmental sustainability are closely interlinked and need to be considered together in climate change discussions. Rising oil prices and growing climate change concerns are contributing to the consideration of alternatives to replace and substantially reduce dependency on fossil fuels. Industrialised nations are increasingly considering biofuels as a “green” alternative to satisfy their (growing) energy demands, secure energy supplies and as a key strategy to reduce GHG emissions. Energy is an essential element for human development and the fulfilment of energy demands poses increasing challenges to all countries. In low income countries, rising oil prices and energy costs may impact sectors and social groups in different ways. For Africa, which has the lowest level of energy consumption in the world, high energy costs can translate into political tensions and hamper efforts to overcome poverty and increased inequality. At the same time the heavy dependence of Africa on biomass energy sources and low end-use efficiency technologies result in negative environmental impacts and energy scarcity for the majority. In the current context of climate change, there is an unquestionable need for a shift from fossil to sustainable renewable sources of energy. At first sight, the massive use of biofuels seems to offer a way to reduce GHG emissions and provide sustainability, because biofuels come from renewable sources. Industrialised nations are already taking steps to increase the share and production of biofuels to meet their demands, including the adoption of more efficient conversion technologies and new government policies. Europe, for instance, is the world’s largest producer of biodiesel from rapeseed, soya and sunflower seeds and has established a target of 10% share for biofuels in transport by 2020.
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Ensuring the poor are considered in this fast developing process
One of the fundamental challenges posed by climate change is how to ensure that developing countries develop in a sustainable manner, fulfilling their energy and other basic needs, and achieve food and energy security, without contributing significantly to climate change. Responsibilities in this process for developing and industrialised countries are differentiated, as well as their capacities and resources to respond. There is a real risk that the climate change focus on biofuels emphasises only their potential for reducing GHG emissions of the transport sector- its renewable nature and the hypothetical benefits that developing countries would have if participating in this emerging market. Because climate change is increasing the vulnerabilities of the poor and limiting their capacities to meet basic energy, water and food needs, there is evident concern that massive biofuel production could exacerbate these vulnerabilities even further. In order to assess whether and how biofuels can be a sustainable energy and development option it is crucial to have an increased understanding of the implications they might have on the poor, their livelihoods and on sustainable development as a whole. Practical Action’s direct experience in researching, developing and promoting small scale biodiesel processing options targeted to meet some of the energy needs of isolated Amazonian communities in Peru as well as our engagement in relevant policy processes and discussions has yielded a number of lessons. In order to establish a realistic assessment of the potential benefits of biofuels, and ensure the reduction of risks and negative impacts on the poor, key social and environmental considerations are: • Careful planning and assessment to avoid competition for land between energy and food production needs. The poor should not be made food insecure to ensure land for biofuel production. Ensuring the right to food for their population should be a priority for all governments. • The majority of farmers in the developing world are subsistence farmers. They could only benefit from the massive cultivation of energy crops if their food security and access to land and other natural resources is not affected, if they are
systematically engaged in the processing and refining of biofuels, get a fair share of the profits and are not only considered as cheap labour for the production stage. To facilitate this, governments will have to take specific measures to ensure adequate labour standards for this sector, set up mechanisms for profit sharing with the communities involved or ensure that the bio-fuel produced by small associations or cooperatives of farmers is purchased at fair prices and follows international labour conditions as established by the ILO. Previous experiences in other sectors unfortunately show that these measures are more the exception than the rule and current examples of existing labour conditions in energy plantations show a trend of exploitation, increased health risks due to spraying of pesticides and herbicides, increase work load and inequality for women, intimidation and limited rights to organise in unions and in general poor enforcement of labour conditions to ensure decent work. • Large scale production of energy crops promoted without a framework that safeguards the interests and prevents potential negative impacts on the poor, could result in a system of intensive cash crop monocultures developed under the control of a few national or international agri-businesses. This may bring little benefit to the most vulnerable, because to ensure that land is available for the production of energy crops poor communities may be displaced and their livelihoods affected. Ongoing land disputes, pending land reform processes, weak land tenure by the poor as well as the acquisition of fertile land by international companies interested in producing energy crops in developing countries may exacerbate the struggle for land by the poor and enhance their displacement. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues estimates that around 60 million indigenous people may be displaced to make way for biofuel plantations. Likewise the scale of production could require increased mechanisation for the harvesting, processing and distribution, which the poor will be unable to compete with. • The production and processing of biofuels also requires fossil–fuel-based inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and transport. Although the technology for production is becoming more efficient and it is expected that the amount of fossil fuel energy used to produce and process the crops will continue to decline, developing countries interested
in engaging in the production of biofuels may continue using fossil fuel inputs to boost production. • The massive and unregulated production of biofuels can be destructive for the environment, enhancing soil depletion and erosion, loss of ecosystems, biodiversity and the livelihoods by the poor, and even have negative impact on GHG emissions. The current clearing of the rainforest in south East Asia to expand oil palm production and the potential harm faced by the Amazon rainforest due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier are a clear warning of how devastating this development can become. The contribution of biofuels for the reduction of GHG emissions should be based on a full life-cycle GHG savings analysis that should include emissions from fertiliser application, land use changes, carbon sink destruction and production systems used among others. • Similarly, demand for water resources for irrigation for energy crops may compete with water resources needed for food production and aggravate water scarcity in some countries. With expected population and food production growth, biofuel production may only add to the existing stress on water resources. • Fast-growing woody crops which can be used for the massive production of biofuels will be more prominent in the future. Steps to develop genetically modified trees are already underway. However with this option, because pollen and seed dispersal mechanisms cannot be prevented there is latent risk of invasion of natural ecosystems and potential cross with natural trees. Unlike other crops, the lifespan of trees can easily reach hundreds of years and therefore it is impossible to predict what the impacts would be. Sterile options will not provide the ecosystems’ services that normal trees provide and will impact biodiversity and affect the way communities manage their environment. Governments should adopt the precautionary principle to ensure that the poor are not placed under unnecessary risks due to this type of biotechnology. • With increasing demand from industrialised nations for biofuels, developing countries will need adequate policies and regulations to ensure that the trading opportunities in this sector support their countries’ socio-economic development, especially in
rural areas, and follow strong sustainability criteria. To avoid negative impacts governments will need to analyse their own conditions, develop, reform and enforce stricter land use laws, environmental protection and water management measures in addition to appropriate comprehensive environmental and social impact assessments before engaging in massive biofuel production. Energy policies should consider specific technical, financial, institutional and capacity building support for isolated communities to produce biofuels to meet their basic energy needs. Optimistically, biofuel production oriented to the local market could benefit rural communities, offering potential to add value to their agricultural production, reduce dependency on external market fluctuations and revitalise local economies. By-products can be reused or be the source of other small-scale local industries. For households, the biofuels could be a cleaner, less labour-intensive energy option for cooking, which could reduce considerably rural women’s exposure to indoor air pollution and give them more time to engage in economic activities. However, these advantages can only be harnessed if biofuels are a preferred and viable option over other small-scale renewable options, when all requirements on availability of land and water for local energy crops, existing community agricultural know how and a minimum level of community organisation are taken into account.
Are biofuels a real and viable option?
Governments, businesses and scientists are actively promoting biofuels as the energy option for the future. Biofuels are seen as an attractive energy and fuel option because of their potential to substitute fossil fuels, increase energy security, apparent price competitiveness in comparison to oil, offer new market opportunities, regenerate degraded land and reduce GHG emissions among others. The potential for the production of biofuels is particularly good in tropical countries where higher crop yields and lower costs for labour and land provide an apparent economic advantage over countries with temperate weather. Since the costs of land and labour are dominant in establishing the price of biofuels, industrialised nations may well prefer to import biofuels rather than attempt to grow them
themselves. The production of biofuels can also be tailored to the local environment and the specific energy needs of the population. Some small-scale conversion technologies already exist and are suited to existing local crops. At the community level, biofuels given certain conditions could be a feasible option to increase access to energy, especially for the poor. Potentially rural economies engaged in growing energy crops could benefit from employment generation, increased rural infrastructure and opportunities to diversify energy sources. In urban centres its use in the transport sector could generate employment and improve air quality. In all cases, these potential benefits to be fully realised will require: Adjustment of relevant energy, environmental and agricultural policies and regulations with full consideration of the environmental and social risks and opportunities involved. Increased number of countries involved in the production of liquid biofuels to diversify supplies in order to achieve acceptable price competitiveness. With the exception of ethanol production in Brazil, biofuels are generally still more expensive than other mitigation measures. Avoiding monocultures by considering the diversity of possible feedstocks that could be used for the production of biofuels to suit different energy needs. At present, the most efficient crops are sugar cane and palm oil, but future feedstocks could include cellulose rich materials, municipal solid waste, and animal waste, among others. An important distinction needs to be made between crops cultivated specifically for energy purposes and primary, secondary and tertiary residues and wastes used for this purpose. The combination of factors such as access to land and security of tenure, existing knowledge of agricultural production, affordable and
appropriate processing technologies and a minimum degree of community organisation need to be considered for biofuels to be an energy option for the poor. Promotion of energy crops with proven regenerative potential that can address biodiversity decline as well as add value to land otherwise unsuitable for food production however caution is required on how degraded or unsuitable land is defined and who defines it.
Any criteria developed for the assessment of the production of biofuels should be based on the principles of sustainable development and not be guided only by market opportunities or potential contributions to mitigation from a pure environmental perspective. Trying to meet targets knowing that developing countries with potential for developing biofuels have limited capacities and institutions to enforce environmental and labour regulations, have unequal access and control of land and water resources, limited participation of the poor in decision and policy making processes and are the subject of increasing interest and exploration of powerful private interests, is disingenuous from the part of industrialised countries. Time and resources are needed for developing countries to develop their capacities, assess potential, limitations and interests in their own contexts and negotiate options that would contribute to their sustainable development and that of their people. More comprehensive research and learning is needed to identify sustainable management practices, technological options and environmental and social impacts of different levels of biofuel production. .
Practical Action is a UK-based development organisation that has offices in seven countries in four regions of the world. Practical Action works with communities to develop appropriate technologies to ensure sustainable improvements in their lives. Practical Action advocates an integrated approach to tackling climate change and poverty reduction, based on justice for poor men and women.