While the environmental and agricultural downsides of first-generation biofuels are pushing some in the developed world away from their development, the economic allure in poorer countries seems too strong to ignore.
In Angola, a country still recovering from a 27-year-long civil war that ended in 2002, the government will begin regulating biofuel production in hopes of attracting billions of dollars in investments from abroad. Large sugarcane plantations for use in ethanol have already sprouted up, and the country hopes foreign companies will now invest heavily in such projects.
As is often the case with first-generation biofuel crops, there is concern that focusing on ethanol production will push out food crops, though. Angola already imports most of its food. According to the UN’s World Food Program, 35 percent of its population is undernourished. Still, Angola’s Agriculture Minister, Pedro Canga, stressed that only marginal lands would be used to grow biofuel crops, telling the country’s Parliament:
“There is no incompatibility between food production and biofuel production.”
While biofuel production might start with margin lands, it’s unlike to find real success there, notes John Duxbury, an expert on biofuel production and global agricultural land use issues at Cornell University.
“If you have a marginal environment you get marginal productivity with biofuel crops just like any other crop,” he said. “So I’m not convinced that’s going to go anywhere.”
Mairon Bastos Lima, a biofuels policy researcher at the Institute for Environmental Studies at VU University Amsterdam, foresees that leading to a growing conflict with food production:
“It is not only a risk but something that is already happening. Governments launching those biofuel programs will always claim that rural communities are not affected, but that should be showed clearly: What is meant by ‘marginal’ lands? What concrete measures are being taken to ensure that rural communities are not negatively affected?”
In Angola, the new law does require that companies coming into the country to produce biofuel must provide medical assistance and other basic necessities to people living nearby. Still, Lima thinks it may not be enough.
“Mere statements that ‘they will not be impacted’ may be just empty rhetoric,” he said. “I have spoken to Brazilian government authorities, for example, and they all deny any form of smallholder displacement or impacts on food production, but any research group who has done field work on that will tell you the exact opposite.”
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month supports Lima’s contention about Brazil.
Planned expansion of biofuel production in the country would displace more than 14,000 square kilometers of food cropland, and thousands more square kilometers of cattle rangelands, the authors, from Germany and UNEP in Kenya, write. To support food and livestock needs, some of those rangelands would expand into areas that are currently forested; clearly the food and environmental concerns with biofuel production are tightly interwoven.
Malaysian Palm Oil
In Malaysia, another new law will require that all vehicles in the country run on biofuel involving five percent processed palm oil by next year. The oil palm does not necessarily compete with food crops, but its production in Malaysia and Indonesia has come at the expense of huge swaths of those countries’ tropical rainforests.
Because of the clear-cutting and forest burning, many analyses have shown that palm oil for biofuel does not actually provide any environmental benefit.
“It’s certainly not what you would call green,” Duxbury said. “You’re not reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, you’re increasing them dramatically.”
Malaysia follows only Indonesia in palm oil production — the two countries together account for 85 percent of global production — and the new law will likely increase the country’s push for even more development. Malaysia’s Commodities Minister, Bernard Dompok, acknowledged “one of the challenges is meeting the sustainability criteria that are being debated worldwide.” Still, he defended the new law, saying biodiesel would actual reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Oil palm has to its advantage a drastically better yield of biofuel per acre than other feedstocks like soy, rapeseed and coconut oil. This makes it especially lucrative for oil palm farmers. Even aside from the greenhouse emission damages the industry can create, though, burning and clear cutting the forests has already put many species of animal such as the Sumatran tiger at risk.
“It’s amazing how the Malaysian government just denies that there are these huge atrocities going on with their palm oil plantations,” said Kate McMahon, the Energy Policy Campaigner at the non-profit Friends of the Earth.
Lowering EU Biofuel Demand
With some of those concerns in mind, the EU is backtracking on its biofuel stance. A report released Thursday found that indirect effects of biofuel production do offset some of the emissions benefits compared with fossil fuels. Although in 2008 EU leaders espoused a goal of 10 percent biofuel volume in vehicles by 2020, the report says that only if the currently used 5.6 percent remains as is will the negatives of biofuel production be kept at bay.
According to Lima, when developed regions like the EU increase their biofuel usage, it can have economic impacts in the developing world.
“The U.S. and the EU have their production but they are still net importers, so for developing countries whose economy is based on agricultural exports, this is a great incentive,” he said.
McMahon said that the EU has been slowly moving away from importing damaging crops like palm oil.
“As Europe becomes wiser to the fact that they don’t want to be importing this type of palm oil for its biodiesel, then the Malaysians want to figure out how they can use it themselves,” she said of the new vehicles law. “Hopefully people would just go back to producing food for themselves rather than producing fuel for our SUVs. That would be ideal.”
Second-Gen Biofuel Taking Time
“I think that with any biofuel, even the advanced stuff, you really have to look at the whole suite of issues that come along with it and make sure you’re avoiding some of these catastrophic impacts,” McMahon said. “Corn is easy and cheap, and unless we stop supporting corn ethanol and changing our policies in order to ensure that we actually get to these so-called second generation biofuels, we’re not going to get there. The policy is not set up to get us there.”
One of the major obstacles to the newer feedstocks has been cost. If algae or waste-to-energy methods, or other possibilities, could come down in production costs, they could begin to compete with corn, sugarcane and oil palm for a share of the global biofuel pie.
“I do think that we should be looking at biomass for biofuels but we have to be very careful about what we do,” Duxbury said. “And we don’t necessarily want the political and industrial complex to make those decisions. The first decision they made, to make ethanol from corn, was a bad choice.”