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  National Geographic 9 May 07
Biofuels Could Do More Harm Than Good, UN Report Warns
Kelly Hearn

Yahoo News 8 May 07
United Nations tackles sustainable bioenergy growth
By Michelle Nichols

Yahoo News 8 May 07
U.N. raises doubts on biofuels
By Nicole Winfield, Associated Press Writer

Biofuels like ethanol can help reduce global warming and create jobs for the rural poor, but the benefits may be offset by serious environmental problems and increased food prices for the hungry, the U.N. said Tuesday in its first major report on bioenergy.

In an agency-wide assessment, the U.N. raised alarms about the potential negative impact of biofuels, just days after a climate conference in Bangkok said the world had both the money and technology to prevent global warming blamed in part on greenhouse gas emissions.

Biofuels, which are made from corn, palm oil, sugar cane and other agricultural products, have been seen by many as a cleaner and cheaper way to meet the world's soaring energy needs than with greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels.

European leaders have decided at least 10 percent of fuels will come from biofuels like ethanol by 2020, and Congress is working on a proposal that would increase production of biofuels sevenfold by 2022.

With oil prices at record highs, biofuels have become an attractive energy source for poor countries, some of which spend six times as much money importing oil than on health care.

But environmentalists have warned that the biofuel craze can do as much or more damage to the environment as dirty fossil fuels--a concern reflected throughout the report, which was released Tuesday in New York by U.N.-Energy, a consortium of 20 U.N. agencies and programs.

U.N.-Energy chairman Mats Karlsson said it only seemed natural to look to biofuels for energy since a quarter of the world's population has no access to power.

"What would be more interesting than to reflect on a source of energy that takes simply sunshine and water, and transforms it into power through photosynthesis?" he told a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York.

"Well, when you reflect on it you find that there are many challenges."

The report said bioenergy represents an "extraordinary opportunity" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But it warned that "rapid growth in liquid biofuel production will make substantial demands on the world's land and water resources at a time when demand for both food and forest products is also rising rapidly."

Changes in the carbon content of soils and carbon stocks in forests and peat lands might offset some or all of the benefits of the greenhouse gas reductions, it said.

"Use of large-scale monocropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion and nutrient leaching," it said, adding that investments in bioenergy must be managed carefully, at national, regional and local levels to avoid new environmental and social problems "some of which could have irreversible consequences."

It noted that soaring palm oil demand has already led to the clearing of tropical forests in southeast Asia.

In addition, the diversion of food crops for fuel will increase food prices, putting a strain on the poor, as evidenced by the recent steep rise in maize and sugar prices, the report said.

"Liquid biofuel production could threaten the availability of adequate food supplies by diverting land and other productive resources away from food crops," it said, adding that many biofuel crops require the best land, lots of water and environment-damaging chemical fertilizers.

While bioenergy crops can create jobs in impoverished rural areas where the bulk of the world's poor and hungry live, creating biofuels favors large-scale production, meaning small-scale farmers could be pushed off their land by industrial agriculture.

It suggested that farm co-ops, as well as government subsidies, could help small-scale farmers compete.

Such concerns have been raised by Greenpeace International and other environmental groups worried that the biofuel fad is being driven by big agricultural interests looking for new markets.

"More and more, people are realizing that there are serious environmental and serious food security issues involved in biofuels," Greenpeace biofuels expert Jan van Aken said. "There is more to the environment than climate change. Climate change is the most pressing issue, but you cannot fight climate change by large deforestation in Indonesia."

Individual U.N. agencies have previously issued small-scale reports on biofuels, but they were largely optimistic and did not highlight negative consequences because they were not yet known, said Gustavo Best, vice chair of U.N.-Energy and a biofuels expert at the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

But with the surge in interest by the private sector, the rise in commodity prices and an awareness of the strain on water supplies that has resulted from biofuel production, "we now have to raise the red flags and say 'be careful, don't go too fast,'" he said in an interview.

"There are winners and losers," he said.

The report itself is something of a miracle, since there has long been opposition among U.N. member states--including OPEC, nuclear and other energy lobbies--to have an international dialogue on energy.

There is for example, no U.N. Millennium Goal for energy, and recent U.N. working documents on sustainable development continue to be very fossil-fuel oriented, Best said.

The document is intended for governments to help them craft bioenergy policies that maximize the potential but minimize the negative impacts--even as the technology continues to change.

"We can't cross our arms and wait to have better data or better methodologies," Best said. "We need to contribute to the discussion, but in a balanced way."

Associated Press Writer Michael Weissenstein at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Yahoo News 8 May 07
United Nations tackles sustainable bioenergy growth
By Michelle Nichols

The United Nations unveiled guidelines on Tuesday to tackle the rapidly growing bioenergy industry, which it warned could threaten the availability of adequate food supplies.

As environment and development ministers from around the world prepare to meet on Wednesday for the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, UN-Energy released its report "Sustainable Energy: A Framework for Decision Makers."

The report said the development of new biofuel industries could provide clean energy services to millions of people who currently lack them, while generating income and creating jobs in poorer areas of the world.

"But the rapid growth in first-generation liquid biofuels production will raise agricultural commodity prices and could have negative economic and social effects, particularly on the poor who spend a large share of income on food," it said.

UN-Energy, which was created to promote consistency on energy developments throughout the United Nations system, said biofuel production had already appeared to have driven up the price of maize in 2006 and 2007.

"The availability of adequate food supplies could be threatened by biofuel production to the extent that land, water and other productive resources are diverted away from food production," UN-Energy said.

But equally "modern bioenergy could make energy services more widely and cheaply available in remote rural areas, supporting productivity growth in agriculture or other sectors with positive implications for food availability and access."


Biofuels -- energy squeezed from all kinds of living matter, such as sugar, corn or rapeseed oil -- burn cleaner and are fast gaining popularity around the world amid high oil prices and a battle against global warming.

Global production of biofuels has doubled in the past five years and was likely to double again in the next four years, UN-Energy said.

In March, the United States, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and the European Commission, announced the creation of the International Biofuels Forum, which aims to increase global production and use of biofuels.

Brazil is the top producer of ethanol from sugar cane, while the United States holds the same position for corn and together they make up 70 percent of the global market.

Gustavo Best, senior energy coordinator at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, told a news conference that the recommendations were needed because the industry "is so fast and so disorganized ... and so misinformed."

Among the recommendations by UN-Energy was that crops that require high fossil energy inputs -- such as conventional fertilizers -- and valuable farm land should be avoided.

But it also warned that sustainable energy crops could have a negative impact if these replace primary forests, "resulting in large releases of carbon from the soil and forest biomass that negate any benefits of biofuels for decades."

The report called for the creation of an international bioenergy certification scheme, including greenhouse gas certification, to ensure that products meet environmental standards "all the way from the fields to the fuel tanks."

National Geographic 9 May 07
Biofuels Could Do More Harm Than Good, UN Report Warns
Kelly Hearn for National Geographic News

The global boom in biofuels is laden with environmental and social risks, even as it presents strong new prospects for mitigating human-caused global warming, a new UN study says.

The study also suggests that biofuels--energy sources derived from plant matter like corn or sugarcane--would serve better for heating and industrial power than for cars and buses, as is the current trend.

"The use of modern biomass for energy production has the potential to significantly reduce anthropogenic green house gas emissions," reads the report, released yesterday by the cross-agency UN Energy working group.

Biofuels such as ethanol can be a cleaner job-generating energy source for 1.6 billion people who live without access to electricity, the authors say.

But the study, titled "Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers," also warns that an unregulated biofuels boom will spawn deforestation, deplete soil nutrients, and undermine food security by monopolizing farmland.

"[T]he rapid growth in first-generation liquid biofuels production will raise agricultural commodity prices and could have negative economic and social effects, particularly on the poor who spend a large share of income on food," the report says.

In many parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia, biofuels businesses have already cleared primary forests to plant energy crops such as palm.

After fossil fuel use, deforestation is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, climate experts point out.

Alternative Use for Alternative Fuels

The report also suggests that balancing the potential pitfalls and benefits of biofuels requires a new approach to energy planning.

Biofuels are often cast as a climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels used for transportation. But the study suggests that the fuels may be better used outside gas tanks for heating homes and providing industrial power.

"Current research concludes that using biomass for combined heat and power (CHP), rather than for transport fuels or other uses, is the best option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade--and also one of the cheapest," the UN report reads.

John Howe, a spokesperson for Celunol, a U.S.-based developer of ethanol technology, said his company agrees with many of the study's findings.

He said, however, that liquid biofuels can and should play a central role in reducing the transportation sector's petroleum dependence, alongside programs to reduce vehicle sizes, charge for carbon emissions, and encourage lifestyles requiring less personal mobility.

"The nations of the world will need to use a wide range of strategies to reduce oil dependency," Howe said. "When it comes to choosing among these strategies, it's not a question of either-or, but both-and."

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