UN study examines bioenergy

By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy | June 05, 2007
An in-depth report on biofuels was released by UN-Energy, an interagency division of the United Nations, to coincide with the meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development in May. The 64-page report, titled "Sustainable Energy: A Framework for Decision Makers," examined nine key sustainability issues facing bioenergy development, including the implications for food security, poverty, health and gender, trade, agriculture, foreign exchange balances, energy security, and climate change. All versions of bioenergy were considered, including biofuels and electricity derived from biomass sources.

The purpose of the report was to evaluate the likely impact of the emerging bioenergy market, and also to contribute to international discussions on the issue, possibly resulting in a code of conduct for the economic, sustainable and equitable development of bioenergy. "UN-Energy seeks to structure the approach to the current discussion on bioenergy," the report stated. "[This report] is the contribution of the UN system to the issues that need further attention, analysis and valuation, so that appropriate trade-offs can be made, and both the energy needs of people met and the local and global environment adequately protected."

Alexander Muller, assistant director-general for the Food and Agricultural Organization Sustainable Development Department, which funded the study, explained the report further. "We provide a framework for the worldwide use of bioenergy, not only for the developed and industrialized world—and the mitigation of climate change—but also for the poorest people to get access to a modern form of electricity," he said.

The report concluded that bioenergy can provide many benefits in reducing poverty, improving access to energy and promoting rural development. However, while bioenergy presents great opportunity, especially for the world's rural poor, a political framework is needed to ensure that those people benefit from bioenergy, the report stressed. Unless new policies are enacted to steer bioenergy use, the environmental and social damages could in some cases outweigh the benefits. The concern is especially true for liquid biofuels, the report noted.

The impacts of bioenergy were explained by Gustavo Best, UN-Energy's vice chairman. For example, biofuel production could threaten food security to the extent that land, water and other productive resources would be diverted away from food production. At the same time, modern bioenergy could make energy services more available in remote areas, supporting productivity growth in agriculture or other sectors, with positive implications for food availability and access. While farmers could see added value to their products, they could also lose as ownership of companies and land concentrates, Best explained.

Bioenergy is an area that requires a high degree of policy integration, the report said. Thus, it recommended several opportunities for international cooperation. The report recommended that individual countries create bioenergy policies that take into account availability, access, stability and utilization. It also recommended that governments weigh the economic and social costs before subsidizing bioenergy sources—liquid biofuels, in particular.

On a global level, the report recommended that signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention to Combating Desertification consider opportunities for the sustainable cultivation and utilization of energy crops. The United States is a signatory to both conventions.

According to Muller, the report's core message was the need to assess the concrete situation in different regions of the world in terms of sustainability. It is necessary to have an international framework with sustainability indicators to decide if biofuels are being produced in an environmentally and socially friendly way, he said, adding that food stocks, water usage and labor standards were important considerations.