The “Food Vs. Fuel” debate over the sustainability of biofuels is taking a big step forward with the publication of a truly massive benchmark report that prominently features Brazilian scientists.
The report’s authors say one third of the world’s energy needs could be bio-based by the year 2050.
The Bioenergy & Sustainability: Bridging the Gaps report, published 14th April, seeks to show that agriculture can be organised in such a way that the growing needs of both human stomachs and automobile gas tanks can be satisfied – all without further exacerbating climate change or global warming.
In scale, scope and sheer academic avoirdupois, this titanic 734 page report is destined to become the ‘Bible of biofuels studies’ for years to come.
The report is edited by four highly-respected Brazilian scientists working at universities in São Paulo state: Glaucia Mendes Souza, Reynaldo L. Victoria, Carlos A. Joly and Luciano M. Verdade.
Bioenergy & Sustainability was sponsored by The Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), an agency linked to UNESCO, and the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). The report was launched in São Paulo at the FAPESP headquarters during an international seminar.
The report’s four coordinators are senior scientists all working for FAPESP’s three core programmes: its Bioenergy initiative BIOEN; its BIOTA programme of biodiversity studies, and its Climate Change Studies group.
In addition to scientists linked to FAPESP, the report received contributions from 137 scientists in 82 institutions located in 24 countries around the world. Scientific studies were developed that assess topics ranging from land use and feedstocks, to technologies, impacts, benefits and policy. They consider how bioenergy expansion and its impacts perform in the energy, food, environmental and climate security, sustainable development and innovation nexus in both developed and developing regions. Authors also highlight numbers, solutions, gaps of knowledge and suggest the science needed to maximize bioenergy benefits.
The seminar in São Paulo launching the report included presentations from the coordinators: Jon Samseth from (SCOPE), France, and Glaucia M. Souza, the head of FAPESP’s BIOEN programme and a professor at the University of São Paulo.
On climate change and energy security, speakers included Brazil’s best-known climate change specialist Paulo Artaxo from the University of São Paulo; Craig Hanson of World Resources Institute, USA; and Isaias de Carvalho Macedo from the University of Campinas.
On the food security topic, speakers were: Patricia Osseweijer from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands Francis Johnson from Sweden’s Environment Institute; Felipe Duhart from the UN’s FAO in Chile, and John Sheehan from Colorado State University.
The seminar also heard from delegates from the commercial biofuels industry, including Elizabeth Farina of Brazil’s UNICA, the alliance of sugar cane and ethanol producers, and Thomas Foust from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the United States.
The 730 page e-report itself is a “meta-study” based on more than 2,000 other research reports. It provides an exhaustive review of existing practices and technologies deployed in the biofuels sector; analyses markets and systems of production; reviews future potential, and assesses criticism of the impacts of the biofuels industry.
The main thrust of Bioenergy & Sustainability: Bridging the Gaps is that a sustainable future is more easily achieved with bioenergy than without it, and not using the bioenergy option would result in significant risks and costs for regions, countries and the planet.
According to the report’s Executive Summary, the authors believe that:
- Development of bioenergy can replenish a community’s food supply by improving management practices and land soil quality
- New technologies can provide communities with food security, fuel, economic and social development while effectively using water, nutrients and other resources
- The use of bioenergy, if done thoughtfully, can actually help lower air and water pollution
- Bioenergy initiatives monitored and implemented, hand in hand with good governance, can protect biodiversity, and provide ecosystems services
- Efficiency gains and sustainable practices of recent bioenergy systems can help contribute to a low-carbon economy by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and assisting carbon mitigation efforts
- With current knowledge and projected improvements 30% of the world’s fuel supply could be biobased by 2050
Bioenergy & Sustainability’s critical evaluation includes an assessment of food and climate security in the context of both food production and an expanding biofuels industry, and assesses the long-term sustainability impacts both for developed and developing nations.
The study contains a set of recommendations for the development of sustainable policies to help governments promote industries based on liquid biofuels, bioelectricity, biogas, and industrial chemical derived from biofuels.
The study is organised into five sections, with Section 3 devoted to “macro” policy issues such as energy and food security; environmental and climate security; and sustainable development.
Section 4 reviews land usage and the debate about current and future sources of appropriate biomass or feedstock for the biofuels industry. There’s a review of the importance of forest industries, and a review of the economic and social impacts of high-profile biofuels industries. The report also highlights numbers, solutions, gaps in knowledge and suggests the science needed to maximize bioenergy benefits.
Predictably, perhaps, Bioenergy & Sustainability clearly states the positive value of biofuels as a means of enabling human activity without exacerbating global warming, while at the same time helping many countries to reduce the geopolitical risks associated with the world’s chief fossil fuel production areas. The positive points help to balance or even outweigh the negative impacts of the biofuels industry – notably the rapid exhaustion of arable soils by nitrogen-hungry biofuels crops, and the ceaseless demand for more cultivable area that stimulates ever more deforestation in many parts of the world.
Furthermore, the authors believe that the biofuels industry could make greater strides towards true sustainability through use of more appropriate raw materials (i.e. non foodstuffs), and by better utilization of the by-products of basic energy extraction processes. By more appropriate usage of plant varieties suited to certain soils or climates, biofuels could become even more more sustainable, the report says.
The conclusion is that the world does have sufficient land to dedicate greater areas to biofuels production without threatening global food security – but that most of this land is in Africa or Latin America.
The report says it’s projected that 50 to 200 million hectares would be needed to provide 10 to 20% of primary energy supply in 2050. Yet available land that does not compromise the uses above is estimated to be at least 500 million hectares and possibly 900 million hectares if pasture intensification or water-scarce, marginal and degraded land is considered.
What’s more, poor regions in developing countries can experience considerable benefits from the biofuels industry, in terms of greater economic activity, better foodstuffs, job creation, and even a reduction in local pollution levels.
The authors of Bioenergy & Sustainability propose not only improving energy security for over 1.3 billion people with no access to electricity and lifting rural areas out of poverty, but ultimately securing a sustainable and equitable future. The resources and technologies for the transition from fossil to renewable energy are, the claim, within our reach, but achieving the critical contributions needed from modern bioenergy call for political and individual will.
You can download and read the full text of Bioenergy & Sustainability by clicking on the link here. http://bioenfapesp.org/scopebioenergy/index.php/chapters
Seminar panels included experts from academia, industry and NGOs presenting and discussing the current status and trends in biomass production and its possible implications for policy, communication and innovation strategies for a sustainable future.
You can find more information on the seminar and speakers by clicking here:www.fapesp.br/9206
You can review a 2013 article about Brazil’s biuofuels industry and the UNESCO-sponsored conference that eventually led to the report just published by clicking here.