By Diego Freire
Agência FAPESP – Bioenergy could supply a quarter of the world’s energy by 2050, reducing the volume of pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions and promoting sustainable development, among other economic and social benefits.
The scientific and technological knowledge underlying this potential is compiled in the international report Bioenergy & Sustainability: bridging the gaps, which is an initiative of FAPESP and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (Scope), an international nongovernmental organization that works with UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific & Cultural Organization.
Launched at FAPESP in São Paulo, Brazil, on April 14, 2015, during a round-table session on bioenergy and sustainability, the report will serve as important input for policymaking, according to Arnaldo Jardim, São Paulo State Secretary for Agriculture & Supply.
“The report embodies the state of the art in bioenergy, a cutting-edge discipline we value very highly in São Paulo. For Governor Geraldo Alckmin, it’s of paramount importance to the future of agriculture, a key sector for the economic development of this state. All the knowledge compiled here must be incorporated into public policy, guide initiatives by private enterprise and serve as a benchmark for the much-needed environmental citizenship we’re pursuing,” Jardim told Agência FAPESP.
The publication summarizes two years of work by 137 experts from 24 countries and 82 institutions and was coordinated by researchers linked to FAPESP’s Research Programs on Bioenergy (BIOEN), Characterization, Conservation, Restoration & Sustainable Use of Biodiversity (BIOTA) and Global Climate Change (PFPMCG).
“Bioenergy is a valuable alternative from the standpoint of efficiency and safety, but it’s also important geopolitically because it’s a flexible and sustainable resource, as well as helping mitigate climate change. The report addresses these and other advantages of appropriate bioenergy production in depth and with a sound scientific basis,” said Glaucia Mendes Souza, a member of BIOEN’s Steering Committee and co-editor of the report.
Orienting public policy to facilitate sustainable development of the bioenergy sector is one of FAPESP’s goals for the initiative, according to FAPESP President Celso Lafer. “The fact that the report was coordinated by researchers linked to some of FAPESP’s most important programs demonstrates the institution’s engagement with sustainable development and its desire to foster multidisciplinary participation by scientists in public policymaking,” he said.
Jon Samseth, President of Scope, attributed the report’s significance for the development of bioenergy to the role that Brazil plays both in the sector and in the international scientific community. “Brazil relies on renewables for 41% of its energy needs, and the country’s scientific community is strong and increasingly globally relevant. These capabilities served as the locomotive to engage a large group of experts in several scientific fields and regions of the world, resulting in an unprecedented effort to concentrate in a single publication all the available knowledge about bioenergy,” Samseth said.
The scientific knowledge represented by the report is also indispensable to the development of private enterprise, according to Elizabeth Farina, President of UNICA, the Brazilian sugarcane industry association. Farina spoke at the launch symposium about the importance of bioenergy to industry in the short term, highlighting liquid biofuels and bioelectricity.
“The report is a compendium of well-founded scientific information,” she said. “It offers essential inputs for industry-wide discussion of an alternative public policy agenda, especially considering the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We must produce creatively and sustainably, and energy efficiency is a key driver of competitiveness for bioenergy.”
The symposium that was held to launch Bioenergy & Sustainability: bridging the gaps at FAPESP featured presentations by the publication’s editors and authors, as well as by guest researchers, that emphasized the potential for expansion in Latin America, among other conclusions.
“Most of the land available for bioenergy production is in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. This land is being used predominantly for low-intensity animal grazing,” said Glaucia Mendes Souza, co-editor of the report.
According to Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira, a researcher affiliated with the Federal University of Itajubá (UNIFEI), Minas Gerais, the conditions in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) are excellent for bioenergy production. Horta Nogueira was one of the report’s associate editors and a co-author of several chapters.
“The land suitable for rainfed agriculture in the LAC region amounts to some 360 million hectares, or 37% of the global total, and is more than three times the area required to meet future world food needs. With sound management and efficient processes, 20% of this area could produce 24 exajoules of liquid biofuels per year, equivalent to 11 million barrels of oil per day. That’s more than current US or Saudi production,” he said.
Horta Nogueira noted that bioenergy production has been expanding in the region for some time: “Since the 1980s, several LAC countries have promoted the production and use of biofuels,” he said. “Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama, Peru and Uruguay have introduced ethanol and biodiesel mandates. Programs for bioelectricity and biogas production have also been implemented. Several countries are producing liquid biofuels. The relevance of production depends on the domestic market.”
Modern bioenergy is expanding in Latin America and the Caribbean, he stressed: “Production is increasing, enhancements have been made to the regulatory framework, new projects have been implemented and biofuel use is growing. However, there is still ample scope for growth and further improvement.”
He went on to say that several challenges must be overcome if sustainable bioenergy is to be promoted and developed in LAC countries: “We need much more information about the impacts and benefits of bioenergy, and a better understanding of market imbalances. This is a difficult task at a time when oil is cheap. We also need stable tax rules and fair pricing mechanisms in order to foster bioenergy markets.”
Despite favorable conditions for producing enough ethanol to meet potential domestic needs, biofuel programs have not advanced in Mexico and Panama owing to price distortions and weak governance. These and other cases are detailed in the report.
“The knowledge organized and discussed in the report is an important source of high-quality information, including guidelines and pertinent recommendations for effective public policy to promote bioenergy,” Horta Nogueira said.
According to the report, harmonizing forestry and agricultural policies is fundamental to the sustainable production and supply of bioenergy through the integration of croplands, forest and pasture in ways that do not jeopardize food production or harm ecosystems. The report presents a number of guidelines and recommendations on food security, energy security and climate security in the area of bioenergy.
In his presentation to the symposium, Paulo Artaxo, Full Professor at the University of São Paulo’s Physics Institute (IF-USP) and one of the report’s co-authors, highlighted issues relating to climate security and detailed bioenergy’s contribution to a sustainable energy balance in light of several contemporary challenges, especially climate change.
“Global warming levels greater than 2°C will lead to significant adverse impacts on biodiversity, natural ecosystems, water supply, food production and health. Any potential impacts of bioenergy should be viewed in this context,” he said.
According to Artaxo, bioenergy is critical for environmental security and climate change mitigation: “Bioenergy projects can be economically beneficial, for example, by raising and diversifying farm incomes and increasing rural employment through the production of biofuels for domestic use or for export. Properly managed bioenergy crops can help maintain soil quality and even result in carbon accumulation, thus mitigating CO2 emission.”
However, he went on to say that although bioenergy plays an important role in such mitigation, there are issues to consider regarding the sustainability of practices and the efficiency of bioenergy systems: “The negative implications of using land for bioenergy can be minimized by increasing the share of bioenergy derived from forest, plantation and crop waste, by integrating bioenergy production with crop production systems, and by deploying marginal or degraded land, among other measures.”
Patricia Osseweijer, Full Professor of Science Communication at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and another of the report’s co-authors, also highlighted Latin America’s importance to the sustainable growth of bioenergy.
“There is enough land available for substantial production of bioenergy and food for a growing world population, and expansion will be predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America,” Osseweijer said. “There’s no inherent causal relationship between bioenergy production and food insecurity. On the contrary, in fact, bioenergy can improve food production systems and rural economic development, stimulating investment in agricultural production in poor areas and providing a dynamic switch system to produce energy or food whenever necessary.”
In addition to Mendes Souza, the editors of the report were Reynaldo Luiz Victória, a member of the PFPMCG (Climate Change Program) Steering Committee, and Carlos Alfredo Joly and Luciano Martins Verdade, both members of the BIOTA Steering Committee. The report will be disseminated via summaries of its main findings and recommendations. Regional launch events will be held in Washington DC (at the World Bank), Brussels, and Nairobi.
The complete text of the report Bioenergy & Sustainability: bridging the gaps is available for download free of charge at bioenfapesp.org/scopebioenergy.