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Sustainable Biofuels?

April 14, 2009
Conceptual model illustrating the likely scaling of the net benefits and net liabilities of biofuels. Adapted from Ojima et al. 2009.

Conceptual model illustrating the likely scaling of the net benefits and net liabilities of biofuels. Adapted from Ojima et al. 2009.

At the beginning of April the International Biofuels Project released an excellent report called Biofuels: Environmental Consequences and Interactions with Changing Land Use. The document is thorough, balanced, well-referenced, and timely. It’s on the hefty side, but it ought to be required reading for biofuel policy-makers.

Here are some key findings (bold headings are mine; remaining text comes straight from report):

  • Small is Beautiful
    Opportunities for biofuel production that maximize social benefits while minimizing environmental impacts exist, but the extent of these win-win situations is limited, and their contribution to society’s energy budget will be very small. As total biofuel production grows, the environmental costs increasingly overshadow societal benefits.

  • Burn biomass, not ethanol
    Increasing evidence suggests that biomass can be used much more efficiently (and therefore with less environmental impact) through direct combustion to generate electricity and heat, rather than being converted to liquid fuels such as ethanol.
  • Mandates are dangerous
    Current mandates and targets for liquid biofuels should be reconsidered in light of the potential adverse environmental consequences, potential displacement or competition with food crops, and difficulty of meeting these goals without large-scale land conversion.
  • Conservation first
    The first steps towards sustainable energy and resource management should aim for significant reductions on the demand side, with greater conservation and improved efficiency. Government mandates and economic incentives aimed at expanding biofuel production should be coupled with policies that manage the overall demand for energy.
  • Certify sustainability
    On the production side, options exist for improving technologies in terms of new feedstocks and conversion technologies as well as more efficient use of biomass. Policies to enhance performance of biofuel production comprise:

    • guidelines for sustainable biofuel production and tools to monitor their implementation;
    • product-oriented certification of biofuels.
  • Consider the whole system
    The utility of guidelines for sustainable biofuel production and certification programs may be reduced if they are based only on product life-cycle and farming standards, as these cannot address the difficult issue of indirect land use resulting from growing demand. The risk of land displacement and conversion far from the site of biofuel production increases with the overall consumption of biomass-based products. Criteria that account for the effects of land-use change, or that restrict the types of biofuel feedstocks, could have greater utility. The development of such criteria is a difficult challenge, but a necessary one if biofuels are to be environmentally sustainable.
  • Use smart incentives
    Policy instruments are needed to help adjust the overall demand for (non-food) biomass at levels which can be supplied by sustainable production such as:

    • effective incentives to significantly increase efficient use of biomass and mineral resources;
    • incentives to reduce fuel consumption for transportation.

So there’s the cutting edge of biofuel science. We need to reduce our demand for energy, avoid large-scale biofuel production systems, and consider system-wide effects of biofuel use. To readers of this blog, it all might sound familiar.


Go straight to the source (PDF documents):

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