Bioenergy / Biomass

Can sustainability criteria for certification of agrofuels be effective?

Agrofuel production involves the artificial creation of a new market with the help of government incentives, targets and subsidies. These are necessary because agrofuels cannot compete without them, so they need support in order to develop.

Green economy and biofuels: what did the CBD say ?

With next year’s Rio+20 Earth Summit due to meet in the ‘biofuel republic of Brazil’ it is little wonder that the fights over agrofuels will be intensifying in the years ahead. UNEP’s flagship ‘Green Economy’ study published last month appears to bless a massive expansion of agrofuel – advocating for over a fifth (21.6%) of all liquid fuels to be bio‐based by 2050. Sourcing all that biological feedstock is a feat that even UNEP admit will gobble up over a third (37%) of global agricultural and forest ‘residues’ – a hefty take from already overstressed ecosystems.

No Idle Threat to the Marginalised

Since this article was written, the focus on using so-called “marginal” or “idle” land for agrofuel production has continued and intensified. The EU currently offers a bonus for agrofuel production on “degraded” land and has consulted on extending this bonus to “idle” land. The article examines some of the issues behind this push and what it means for indigenous and local communities, who may not be recognised as land-users, but who may actually be protecting and enhancing biodiversity vital to food supplies on the land they use.

Agrofuels or biofuels?

Agrofuels are sometimes referred to as biofuels. The term biofuels is used widely for any fuel derived from biological material in contrast to fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). It includes for example biogas production from landfill sites. Where plants are cultivated in agricultural systems for the purpose of fuel production, the term agrofuel is more appropriate to include the specific context and problems such as monoculture plantations and the competition with land for food production.
Myths and realities
First generation agrofuels are liquid fuels made from the reproductive parts (seeds) of crop plants. Two examples of the main types are ethanol produced from the starch of maize kernels and biodiesel from the oil of soya beans. They were strongly promoted as a means to address climate change, to improve energy security and to regenerate rural areas, without reducing the use of internal combustion engines (e.g. cars, tractors, planes, generators) or even modifying those engines too radically.
But contradictions soon emerged, as shown by the report Towards a Reality Check in Nine Key Areas. Agrofuels threaten biodiversity and food security without actually being a solution for climate change. They also need large areas of land and plenty of water. The suggestion that they should be grown on millions of hectares of 'marginal land' ignores the fact that such land may well be vital to local communities and the resilience of ecosystems, their function and services. If such land is genuinely degraded, as often claimed, it is unlikely that it would support the production of crops at industrial scale without massive inputs.
Second generation agrofuels are now promoted as a solution to the problems of the first generation. These 'advanced' agrofuels are meant to utilise the whole plant or tree to produce fuel and other commercially valuable products that are currently derived from fossil fuels, such as plastics. Producing these next (or second) generation agrofuels is energy intensive and involves breaking down the complex, resilient lignin and the different celluloses in tree and plant biomass, using heat, pressure and chemicals. Microbiological processes are also required and are being further developed for these purposes, including the use of genetically modified microorganisms. At the same time researchers are trying to produce fast-growing genetically modified (GM) trees with reduced or less resilient lignin.

Agrofuels and the Myth of the Marginal Lands

It is claimed that growing agrofuels on marginal lands will bring development benefits to Southern countries, while avoiding the negative impacts on forests, food security, climate change and land rights, brought about by agrofuels so far. But a closer look finds that growing on “marginal” lands will not avoid these problems, but exacerbate them.

Why 'marginal' land does not solve the biofuel problems

Partly in order to respond to accusations that agrofuels compete with food production, some propose that agrofuel crops should only be planted on marginal or idle land. We are told there are millions of hectares of such land around the world. But before considering what could be grown on it we must define "marginal land".
So-called marginal land may be a vital resource to local communities - especially women - to herders, pastoralists and to biodiversity.

Agrofuels: Towards a Reality Check in Nine Key Areas

This document focuses on particular types of ‘biofuel’ which we prefer to call agrofuel because of the intensive, industrial way it is produced, generally as monocultures, often covering thousands of hectares, most often in the global South.

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