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Biomass limits (Part 1)

An 18-month inquiry by the independent Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB) has found that rapid expansion of biofuels production in the developing world has led to problems such as deforestation and displacement of indigenous people. The need to meet rising biofuel targets has also led to exploitation of workers, loss of wildlife and higher food prices. Biofuels also contribute to poor harvests, commodity speculation and high oil prices which raise the cost of fertilisers and transport. However, it says, there is a clear need to replace liquid fossil fuels to limit climate change and if new biofuel technology can meet ethical conditions, there is a duty to develop it.

NCB say an international certification scheme, like the Fairtrade scheme for food, was needed- to guarantee that the production of biofuels met the five ethical conditions identified by the NCB: observing human rights, environmentally sustainable, reduced carbon emissions, fairly traded and equitably distributed cost and benefits.

In a new report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) similarly claimed that bioenergy could be part of the solution to climate-smart agricultural development, but only if their production was properly managed. Large-scale liquid biofuel development, in particular, may, they say, hinder the food security of smallholders and poor rural communities, and enhance climate change through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by direct and indirect land use change. It’s therefore crucial they say to develop bioenergy operations in ways that mitigate risks and harness benefits. Safely integrating both food and energy production addresses these issues by simultaneously reducing the risk of food insecurity and GHG emissions, and Integrated Food-Energy Systems (IFES) can, they claim, achieve these goals on both small- and large-scales.

This may sound like wishful thinking, but FAO offers concrete options for how smallholder farmers and rural communities, as well as private businesses, could benefit from these developments and attempts to give a holistic picture of the different types of energy that can be produced from agricultural operations, and how they can be aligned with current food production schemes. [

The International Energy Agency similarly seems convinced that, given proper controls, biofuels can play a major role. In its new Roadmap, it says that they could supply 27% of global transport fuel by 2050, on a sustainable basis. The IEA says that ‘while vehicle efficiency will be the most important and most cost-efficient way to reduce transport emissions, biofuels will still be needed to provide low-carbon fuel alternatives for planes, marine vessels and other heavy transport modes’. With optimised policies in place, the report predicts that biofuel production could grow from 55 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) today to 750 Mtoe in 2050.

To protect land for food production, the IEA suggests using 1 billion tonnes of residues/wastes, and 3 billion tonnes high-yielding non-food energy crops, the so-called second-generation technologies, such as cellulosic ethanol. Even so, production would have to be supplemented with around 100m hectares of land – around 2% of total agricultural land, a three-fold increase compared with today. And the report admits that the 27% target is only attainable if lignocellulosic technologies are produced at an industrial scale within 10 years, and would require government support and research and development investment of more than $13 trillion over the next four decades and an international support programme. But it was claimed that ‘biofuels would increase the total costs of transport fuels only by around one per cent over the next 40 years, and could lead to cost reductions over the same period.’

The report warns that the use of fossil energy during cultivation, transport and conversion of biomass to biofuel will have to be reduced, while direct or indirect land-use changes, such as converting forests to grow biofuel feedstocks which release large amounts CO2, must be avoided. The IEA says that it is important to impose sustainability standards for biofuels to prevent harmful impacts on land, food production and human rights. It suggests a land use management strategy be imposed along with a reducing in tariffs to encourage trade and production of biofuels.

Are these proposals realistic? It ought to be possible, at least in theory, given the right regulatory framework, to avoid food-energy conflicts, but even with the best technology, there’s still a risk that commercial pressures, locally and globally, for high added value vehicle fuel production will overwhelm any efforts at balance and integration- energy is the ultimate cash crop. For example, not all of it is for vehicles, but only 6% of the current global supply of palm oil meets sustainability standards: see:

If we move away from high added-value products like biofuels for transport, the situation gets a little easier. Biomass can also be used for heat and power. Indeed many argue this make more sense- since the final energy yields/acre using solid woody biomass are generally higher than for liquid biofuel production.

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) has looked at the overall global potential for biomass and concluded that it could meet up to 20% of the world’s energy demand in 2050, half of it from biomass plantations. But that would involve a substantial expansion of land use, by up to 30%, depending on the scenario, and irrigation water demand could double.

In the PIK study, fields and pastures for food production were excluded, as were areas of untouched wilderness or high biodiversity, as well as those forests or peatlands, which store large amounts of CO2. But with second generation (non food) energy crops, the bioenergy potential ranged from 25 to 175 exajoule by year: the lower outcomes are for strong land use restrictions and without irrigation, the higher outcomes assume few land use restrictions and strong irrigation.

A middle scenario would result in about 100 exajoule, while the world’s energy consumption is estimated to double from today’s 500 to 1000 exajoule by 2050. It’s claimed that roughly the same amount of energy production, in addition to biomass plantations, could result from agricultural residues. Hence the 20% headline figure, with increased use of residues instead of cultivating dedicated energy crops seen as crucial for a sustainable future.

Beringer, T., Lucht, W., Schaphoff, S.: Bioenergy production potential of global biomass plantations under environmental & agricultural constraints. GCB Bioenergy, 2011 [doi:10.1111/j.1757-1707.2010.01088.x]

A new study funded by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) came to similar conclusions, at least on the benefits of using non-dedicated land, in the UK context. It looked at the potential of planting short rotation coppice (poplar and willow) in England, taking into account social, economic and environmental constraints and concluded that planting short rotation coppice energy crops on England’s unused agricultural land could produce enough biomass to meet renewable energy targets without disrupting food production or the environment.

The UKERC study, published in Biofuels, says that new technology will enable bio-fuels to be made from lignocellulosic crops (e.g. short rotation coppice willow and poplar), which, unlike current cellulosic crops (typically derived from food crops such as wheat and maize) can grow on poor-quality agricultural land. While the results suggest that over 39% of land in England cannot be planted with SRC due to agronomic or legislative restrictions, marginal land (ALC grades 4 and 5) is realistically available to produce 7.5 m tons of biomass. This would be enough to generate approx 4% off current UK electricity demand and approx 1% of energy demand. The SW & NW were seen as having the potential to produce over one third of this, owing to their large areas of poor grade land.

Not everyone will agree that, even with new types of crop, biomass can be much of an options, but in Biomass limits 2, next week, I’ll be looking at some radical technical fixes that might improve the situation for biofuels and/or biomass use.

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