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UN assesses crop- and forestry-based biofuels

Nov. 3, 2009, Nairobi, Kenya – Governments should fit biofuels into an overall energy, climate, land-use, water, and agricultural strategy if their deployment is to benefit society, the economy, and the environment as a whole, concludes a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.


November 3, 2009
By Canadian Biomass

Nov. 3, 2009, Nairobi, Kenya – A far more sophisticated approach needs to be taken when
developing biofuels as an environmentally friendly energy option, a new report
concludes. Governments should fit biofuels into an overall energy, climate,
land-use, water, and agricultural strategy if their deployment is to benefit
society, the economy, and the environment as a whole. The report Towards
Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Assessing Biofuels
is based on a detailed review of
research published up to mid-2009, as well as the input of independent experts
worldwide. It is the first such report by the United Nations Environment
Programme’s (UNEP) International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.

The
report says that some first-generation biofuels such as ethanol from sugar cane
can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As currently practiced in a country such
as Brazil, it can lead to emissions reductions of between 70 and well over 100%
when substituted for petrol. However, the way in which biofuels are produced
matters in determining whether they lead to more or less greenhouse gas
emissions. The report identifies conditions under which the production of
biofuels does lead to higher emissions. For example, the production and use of
biodiesel from palm oil on deforested peatlands in the tropics can lead to
significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 2000% when compared
with fossil fuels. This is mainly a result of carbon releases from soil.
However, greenhouse gas emissions reductions can arise if palm or soybeans are
instead grown on abandoned or degraded land.

Examples
of other beneficial biofuels are biomethane from manure, with emissions savings
of over 170% and second-generation ethanol produced from agricultural and
forestry wastes, with savings in the region of 80 to 90% over petrol.

The
report notes that generating electricity at local power stations using wood,
straw, seed oils, and other crop or waste materials "is generally more
energy efficient that converting biomass to liquid fuels."

"Using
abandoned or so called waste land for biofuels might be a sensible option, but
it may also have implications for biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions
might be better cut by forestry schemes,” says Professor Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker,
who heads the Resource Panel.

Achim
Steiner, UN under-secretary general and executive director of the UN
Environment Programme, which hosts the Resource Panel, says: "Biofuels are
neither a panacea nor a pariah, but like all technologies, they represent both
opportunities and challenges. Therefore, a more sophisticated debate is
urgently needed, which is what this first report by the Panel is intended to
provide. On one level, it is a debate about which energy crops to grow and
where, and also about the way different countries and biofuel companies promote
and manage the production and conversion of plant materials for energy
purposes—some clearly are climate friendly, whereas others are highly
questionable."

A summary
and the full report are available from the UNEP Energy branch Bioenergy webpage.


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