Making Biofuels More Sustainable

A report published by the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management has outlined recommendations to make the future production of biofuels more sustainable. The report concentrated on first generation biofuels, such as ethanol and sugar cane, analysing the life cycle of their production. The authors found that the way in which biofuels are produced and managed can determine if they benefit society, the economy and the environment, but that more information is needed on the impact of biofuel production on water and biodiversity.

The report found that some biofuels can contribute to a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; the production of ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil for example saves 70 – 100% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuel use. However, others can substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels; land clearance for the growth of oil palms for biodiesel results in a 2000% increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

17 billion litres of bioethanol were produced in 2000 and by 2007 this had grown to 52 billion litres. Such growth neccessitates increasing the amount of land put aside for the growth of crops for fuel: 2.3% of global cropland was covered by biofuel crops in 2008, up from 0.9% in 2004.

The report’s authors recommend reducing the environmental pressures of biofuel production through:
– enhancing the efficiency of biofuel production through increased yields and improvements in agricultural technology;
– growing biofuels on degraded, marginal and abandoned land;
– using waste from municipal, agricultural and forestry sectors to provide biomass for fuel;
– the use of biomass residue (left over from biomass processing) to produce electricity and heat.

In addition, biofuel policies should limit quotas and targets to levels which can be supplied sustainably. Productivity could be increased through reforming subsidies for fossil fuels.

Original source: European Commission – Science for Environment Policy
Download the report:Towards sustainable production and use of resources: Assessing Biofuels