Bioenergy requires public policies to advance on a global scale
December 03, 2014
By Elton Alisson, in Campos do Jordão
Agência FAPESP – Bioenergy can contribute toward increasing energy security and, when correctly produced, can also mitigate the impact of global climate change and compensate for the environmental problems associated with deforestation and forest degradation.
To achieve these benefits, however, public policies that consider the entire renewable energy production chain, including land use and conversion technologies, as well as the social, environmental, economic and governance issues related to the topic are required.
These conclusions are from the summary of an assessment report regarding the global implementation of bioenergy systems that is being prepared by Brazilian scientists associated with FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN), the Research Program on Global Climate Change (RPGCC) and the Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA) in collaboration with experts from 24 countries, under the auspices of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) – an intergovernmental agency partner of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The report summary on biofuels and sustainability, known as the Rapid Assessment Process, was presented on October 20, 2014, during the opening session of the 2nd Brazilian Bioenergy Science and Technology Conference (BBEST), which was held in Campos do Jordão in inland São Paulo State.
The final document, which will also include the release of an executive summary to guide public policy, will be made available on April 14-15, 2015, during a workshop at FAPESP.
“The summary report is the result of discussions among 50 experts in the field of bioenergy from 13 countries who met in late 2013 at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris during a planning workshop for the rapid assessment process on bioenergy and sustainability,” said Glaucia Mendes Souza, a professor at the Chemistry Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP) and member of the FAPESP Area Panel for the BIOEN Program, in comments to Agência FAPESP.
“The conclusions of discussions among these experts on topics such as energy, food and environmental and climate security, as well as on sustainable development and innovation, will serve as the basis for the 21-chapter, 700-page final report that will be made available in an e-book format free of charge,” said Souza, who is coordinating the preparation of the document.
One of the major conclusions is that, with reduced oil reserves, increased fossil fuel prices and the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GGEs), bioenergy is emerging as a promising alternative for increasing future energy security and could become one of the largest sources in the energy matrix of many countries in the coming decades.
To achieve this objective, however, the authors of the assessment recommend increasing the understanding of the impacts that policies, regulations and certification systems will have on defining the methods of governance that ensure sustainability and equality in the distribution of the benefits introduced by bioenergy. The authors also recommend conducting a careful analysis of the financial investment needed to implement systems to produce renewable energy.
“There are local and global public policies that have an impact on funding, as well as on the market and the export and import of biofuels; there is also competition with the very inexpensive oil industry,” Souza said.
“The bioenergy production chain needs to have subsidies and public policy support to increase its scale of production and to become more competitive,” she said.
The authors of the document believe that the importance of bioenergy for energy security will grow as a result of advances in biofuel conversion technologies that use biomass and cellulose as starting materials. This factor will significantly increase the global resource base for generating sustainable energy.
The expectations of global initiatives such as SE4ALL (Sustainable Energy for All), established by the United Nations (UN) in 2011, are that by 2030, 40% to 60% of the world’s production of renewable energy will come from biomass, and that at least 10% of the world’s primary energy will be provided by bioenergy.
To meet this goal, however, the authors of the assessment say that among other issues, we still need to find answers to the questions of how to finance this effort, which raw materials to use, and what the biofuel, electrical power and heat production technology options will be for different regions of the world.
“We are noticing that no single solution is appropriate for all countries or regions around the world,” Souza said. “The bioenergy production cases we have assessed showed that although there are some similarities, there are more differences in terms of the environmental, social and economic impacts of the various biofuels, as determined by the local conditions.”
According to the researchers, global bioenergy production is still very local. Some examples today can be found in sugarcane ethanol in Brazil and Thailand, bioelectricity in Mauritius and Brazil, biogas in the United States, Germany and the UK, and biodiesel from vegetable oil (Jatropha curcas) in the African nations of Malawi and Mozambique.
The outlook, however, is for bioenergy to become a global business in the coming decades. “It is possible that the bioenergy-producing countries will become exporters of renewable energy and that bioenergy will change global geopolitics, just as oil established a division between the countries that have or need to buy oil,” Souza said.
Reduction of emissions
Another advantage of bioenergy that is highlighted in the report is its contribution to reducing the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
Currently, nearly 87% of the world’s energy consumption comes from fossil fuels such as gasoline.
Although the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that this share will fall to 75%, total fossil fuel consumption will continue to increase, adding 6 gigatons (Gt) of these gases into the atmosphere by 2035.
Studies cited in the report indicate that when sugarcane ethanol is used to replace fossil fuels in transportation, the biofuel may contribute to reducing between 80% to 100% of liquid GGEs, according to the authors of the assessment.
The increase in bioenergy production has to be accompanied, however, by studies and analyses of all associated implications and environmental impacts to avoid causing the opposite of the intended effect, caution the researchers.
“Sometimes, even the type of soil management used in sugarcane production can lead to an increase in GGEs,” said Reynaldo Victoria, USP professor and member of the Area Panel for the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change.
“If planting sugarcane results in tons of nitrogen being put into the soil, it could increase the emission of greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide. That is why much care has to be taken regarding the technologies used,” said the researcher, who is one of the editors of the report.
The production of bioenergy from biomass could also, in some cases, contribute to the recovery and increase of environmental resources for fauna from degraded land areas.
“In some circumstances, when degraded pastures are replaced with crops such as sugarcane or eucalyptus, the soil is allowed to recover, actually resulting in an increase of the resources that are available to fauna in that area,” said Luciano Verdade, who is a USP professor and member of the Area Panel for the Biota-FAPESP Program, as well as an editor of the report.
“However, there are also impacts that can be negative because the intensification of agriculture implies the increased use of pesticides that generally result in contamination of the water and biota,” added Verdade.
According to the researcher, some ways to try to minimize these negative impacts include prioritizing the use of environmentally friendly growing techniques and implementing long-term programs for environmental and biodiversity monitoring.
“Programs for environmental and biodiversity monitoring allow for the detection, beforehand, of potential negative impacts that might not be evident in a degraded area,” he said.
More information about BBEST is available at www.bbest.org.br.
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