For a more balanced future
Committee evaluates 2,000 studies and suggests that bioenergy could expand without resulting in environmental damage
With sustainable bioenergy production techniques already available, up to 30% of the world’s energy could be supplied through bioenergy by 2050—about 10 times more than the current share—without affecting biodiversity or endangering food security. The scenario was presented in the international report Bioenergy & sustainability: Bridging the gaps, the result of a partnership between FAPESP and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), an independent body that cooperates with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Released in April 2015 at FAPESP’s headquarters in São Paulo, the 700-page document was based on approximately 2,000 scientific studies and assessments performed by 137 specialists from 24 countries, involving more than 80 research institutions. The work was coordinated by researchers from FAPESP programs such as Research in Bioenergy (BIOEN), Research into the Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity (Biota), and Research on Global Climate Change (PFPMCG), invited by SCOPE to prepare the report. The committee was created in 1969 in order to evaluate the production of knowledge on the environment and provide information to researchers and public policy makers through seminars and annual publications. The complete document is available here.
The report provides research data and results combined with an analysis of the current bioenergy outlook and a critical review of its impacts. “Bioenergy could contribute to geopolitical changes due to its flexibility and sustainability, and because of its role in mitigating climate change. The advantages of adequate bioenergy production have scientific support,” says Glaucia Mendes Souza, a member of BIOEN management and co-editor of the document, referring, for example, to the renewable character of biofuels and the recent advances in bioenergy related to the development of increasingly more productive plant varieties. The document argues that an increase in biomass cultivation for energy generation would not require deforestation or re-purposing of agricultural land currently used for the production of food. There is enough land to produce bioenergy if areas employed for extensive livestock grazing and those with degraded soil are used. Jon Samseth, a researcher at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences in Norway and chairman of SCOPE, emphasized Brazil’s participation in preparing the report because it is one of the leading countries in the development of bioenergy within the global scientific community. “Renewable energy supplies 41% of Brazil’s energy needs. In Nordic countries, for example, the percentage is 30% to 35%,” commented Samseth.
Despite scientific and technological advances, the study’s authors acknowledge that the expansion of biofuels depends on public policy support in order to sustain itself globally. Today, 87% of the world’s energy needs are met by the consumption of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. “Reversing this would require tripling production of modern bioenergy by 2030,” estimates Souza, referring to the most efficient forms of transforming biomass into fuels, such as ethanol from corn and sugarcane, and biodiesel from soybeans and palm oil.
To get there, according to the researcher, we must convert scientific knowledge into public policy and integrate targeted strategies for agriculture, environmental conservation and bioenergy production that are usually developed separately. The report suggests that the combination of forest cultivation—that is, planting reforestation areas—and bioenergy production, integrating grasslands and woodlands, could soften the effects of climate change, in addition to ensuring food security.
“Appropriately managed agricultural crops can help maintain soil quality and even result in carbon accumulation, reducing CO2 emissions,” explains Paulo Artaxo, professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) Physics Institute and co-author of the report. One of the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, is the adoption of zero tillage for crops. The technique consists of making small furrows for planting seedlings, without plowing. Thus, the soil is protected from erosion, and wastes from previous harvests help fertilize it.
Expansion and caveats
One proposal presented in the report is to expand production of bioenergy together with that of food. According to the document, the agricultural land available on the planet is concentrated in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and much of it is used for low-intensity grazing. According to Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira, of the Federal University of Itajubá, co-author of some chapters of the report, approximately 360 million hectares of land suitable for arid agriculture are available in Latin America and the Caribbean, corresponding to 37% of the world total and more than three times the area needed to meet the world’s food needs. “Just 20% of this area could produce biofuel equivalent to 11 million barrels of oil per day, more than current production by the United States or Saudi Arabia,” he says.
Invited to comment on the report at the launch event, Luiz Felipe Duhart, a Chilean consultant and former head of the regional office of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Latin America, said that expansion of bioenergy in the region must take into account social impacts such as food price distortions and increased monoculture. “We cannot rule out the danger of food prices being affected by an increase in biofuel production,” he says. “The United States started producing ethanol from corn, and this contributed to increasing the cost of the commodity in Central America, where corn is the staple food. This needs to be avoided,” he added. The SCOPE report suggests monitoring the price of food items used as raw materials for bioenergy and recognizes that land for expansion of planting is mainly in Latin America and Africa. It also claims that no scientific evidence was found linking bioenergy production to increases in food prices.
During the event, Duhart was asked about the possibility of bioenergy creating conditions that would favor increasing monoculture farming, considered by environmentalists to be a threat to biodiversity. “In Brazil, we do not see sugarcane as a monoculture. A large number of hectares are planted, but nothing like in Indonesia, where the entire island is planted with palms for oil production,” he says. In Brazil, states Duhart, farmers have invested in techniques to increase sugarcane yield. An example is cellulosic ethanol, also called second-generation ethanol, made from agricultural residues such as sugarcane bagasse. However, the SCOPE report is emphatic in relation to this technique: second-generation ethanol is still produced on a small scale, is just beginning to be used commercially and is only starting to be implemented in a few places in the world—one of which is Brazil. According to the document, the cost of the technologies involved in this process must be reduced.
Pellets and chips
The report published by FAPESP presents other initiatives adopted around the world. One is Akershus, a heating distribution center implemented in Norway in 2011. The main raw materials used at the center are wood chips and pellets—dried and pressed particles with high heating value—that can be used as fuel for residential or industrial boilers and power plants. Pellets are seen as a clean, renewable fuel and are used to generate heat in other European countries. The heat is distributed as hot water through pipes connecting homes and buildings to the generating plant.
Another case evaluated by SCOPE is the planting of the Barbados nut plant (Jatropha curcas) in Africa for use in producing biodiesel. Since it cannot be fed to livestock, the plant is normally cultivated in rows around other crops, and even serves as a barrier against wind and erosion. According to the report, non-governmental organizations are encouraging the planting of the Barbados nut plant as a rural development strategy. In some locations, small farmer cooperatives were created in partnership with companies that provide equipment and infrastructure and buy seeds. The by-product resulting from biodiesel production is used as fertilizer, and also sold by the small farmers.
But there are still doubts about the future of this strategy. “The productivity of the Barbados nut plant is low and it suffers from various diseases. Because of this it has been successful in only a few regions,” says Glaucia Souza. “This example shows how bioenergy production must be addressed from different perspectives. From the scientific point of view, the Barbados nut plant still needs more productivity and environmental adaptation studies. From the public policy viewpoint, the effort depends on interconnections between small farmers, businesses and local government. The economic and social viability of a type of biomass depends on the local context,” she explains.