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UN Report Urges Caution on Biofuels

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In an underreported story (no mention in the Financial Times or the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal reference was in its energy blog, far from prime time), the United Nations said in essence that biofuels could create as many problems, via environmental damage and higher food prices, as they solve. It also says that biofuels are better used for heating and power rather than for transportation, which flies in the face of Detroit’s ethanol push (one we’ve viewed with skepticism).

From the BBC:

The UN report, Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers, suggests that biofuels can be a force for good if they are planned well, but can bring adverse consequences if not.

“The development of new bioenergy industries could provide clean energy services to millions of people who currently lack them,” it concludes, “while generating income and creating jobs in poorer areas of the world.”

Intensive farming of energy crops demands water and resources
But the prices of food, land and agricultural commodities could be driven up, it warns, with major impacts in poorer countries where people spend a much greater share of their incomes on food than in developed nations.

On the environmental side, it notes that demand for biofuels has accelerated the clearing of primary forest for palm plantations, particularly in southeast Asia.

This destruction of ecosystems which remove carbon from the atmosphere can lead to a net increase in emissions.

The report warns too of the impacts on nature: “Use of large-scale mono-cropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion and nutrient leaching.”

This has been avoided, the report says, in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo where sugar cane farmers are obliged to leave a percentage of their land as natural reserves.

Water is also a concern. The expanding world population and the on-going switch towards consumption of meat and dairy produce as incomes rise are already putting pressure on freshwater supplies, which increased growing of biofuel crops could exacerbate.

In conclusion, UN Energy suggests policymakers should take a holistic look before embarking on drives to boost biofuel use.

“Only through a convergence of biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions and water-use policies can bioenergy find its proper environmental context and agricultural scale,” the report concludes.

The AP provides further detail:

European leaders have decided at least 10 percent of fuels will come from biofuels like ethanol by 2020, and Congress is working on a proposal that would increase production of biofuels sevenfold by 2022. With oil prices at record highs, biofuels have become an attractive energy source for poor countries, some of which spend six times as much money importing oil than on health care.

But environmentalists have warned that the biofuel craze can do as much or more damage to the environment as dirty fossil fuels – a concern reflected throughout the report, which was released Tuesday in New York by U.N.-Energy, a consortium of 20 U.N. agencies and programs….

Changes in the carbon content of soils and carbon stocks in forests and peat lands might offset some or all of the benefits of the greenhouse gas reductions, it said.

“Use of large-scale monocropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion and nutrient leaching,” it said, adding that investments in bioenergy must be managed carefully, at national, regional and local levels to avoid new environmental and social problems “some of which could have irreversible consequences.”

It noted that soaring palm oil demand has already led to the clearing of tropical forests in southeast Asia….

“More and more, people are realizing that there are serious environmental and serious food security issues involved in biofuels,” Greenpeace biofuels expert Jan van Aken said. “There is more to the environment than climate change. Climate change is the most pressing issue, but you cannot fight climate change by large deforestation in Indonesia.”

Individual U.N. agencies have previously issued small-scale reports on biofuels, but they were largely optimistic and did not highlight negative consequences because they were not yet known, said Gustavo Best, vice chair of U.N.-Energy and a biofuels expert at the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization….

The report itself is something of a miracle, since there has long been opposition among U.N. member states – including OPEC, nuclear and other energy lobbies – to have an international dialogue on energy. There is for example, no U.N. Millennium Goal for energy, and recent U.N. working documents on sustainable development continue to be very fossil-fuel oriented…..

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