News & Media
News and Media
A jatropha plantation in Zambia. Popularly known as a 'miracle crop,' jatropha actually requires high inputs of labor and agrochemicals, plus good rainfall and high-quality soil. CIFOR PHOTO/JEFF WALKER.
Wealthy countries want biofuels to reduce carbon emissions. Developing countries want them for economic growth, jobs, and energy security. But are biofuels living up to expectations?
SEI researchers are part of a large, collaborative project led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and funded by the European Commission to gauge the impact of bioenergy development on forests in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
The project, ‘Bioenergy, sustainability and trade-offs: Can we avoid deforestation while promoting bioenergy?’ is now in its third year, and on Tuesday, 7 December, CIFOR hosted an event at COP16 to present interim findings.
Two of the SEI researchers involved in the project were in the audience: Eric Kemp-Benedict and Francis X. Johnson. What follows are their perspectives on the work done so far.
What does this project entail?
Johnson: We’re trying to make assessments of the impact of expansion of biofuels, at the local, national, regional and global levels. We’re doing socioeconomic research, trying to get a sense of what is happening at the margins, and how we might influence it in a positive way, to encourage development of biofuels that follow more sustainable pathways.
What have you found so far?
Kemp-Benedict: Results from the project so far are sobering.
Developing countries are interested in biofuels because of their contribution to national development objectives: employment, revenue generation, energy security, and improving balance of trade. High-income consumer countries are interested in importing biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet in the case studies and surveys presented at the side event, positive outcomes for any of these objectives were the exception, rather than the rule. Customary livelihoods are often displaced without due consultation or compensation, and employment on biofuel feedstock estates tends to be low.
Can smallholders fare well in the biofuels market?
A majority of smallholders in Southeast Asia’s long-established oil palm industry report net benefits, but those in the emerging jatropha industry have yet to benefit from their investments. Smallholders face barriers to market entry in the soy market despite policies to ensure they benefit. In Mexico and Zambia, biofuel processing companies entered into agreements with smallholders, but did not show up to buy the seed when the jatropha started producing.
Are there general patterns?
Johnson: It can be tricky to find what the local benefits are for a particular region, because it depends on what they were growing before, what they’re growing now, what the governance structures are. The local impacts can be varied, so it’s rather hard to generalise.
What has been the impact on forests?
Kemp-Benedict: In most of the case studies, biofuel crops expanded into forest land, entailing a large decrease in carbon stocks. Calculations by project partners suggest that it is unlikely that carbon stocks could return to their original levels over the lifetime of the feedstock.
Is there any good news?
Kemp-Benedict: Despite the negative results, the presenters at the side event offered hope for biofuels for development and for the climate, a point of view that was reinforced by evidence from Brazil and by the comments of a representative of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels who was in the audience.
The main implication of the research is that the desired outcomes will happen only with focused effort, and that the effort will take resources that might be in short supply.
Along with CIFOR and SEI, this project involves the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and Joanneum Research (JR). Click here to visit CIFOR’s website for the project.