By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

For presentation, podcast and photos from this event see the STEPS Seminars page:

During the past few years, bio-energy and especially liquid biofuels have gone from being a topic for mostly technical researchers to full-blown controversy and front-page headlines. It has been implicated for exacerbating climate change rather than mitigating and also been cited as a major factor in rising food prices. The reality is of course more complicated than the polarized examples that are portrayed in the media, which can be dependent on the particular group of stakeholders that managed to get their story through. We are lucky to have Francis X. Johnson, Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute here today to give a STEPS Centre seminar on Biofuels, Climate and Development: Emerging Issues and Challenges.

The SEI has been working for many years with partners in southern Africa and elsewhere to try to better articulate some of the key issues that impact the manner and the extent to which expansion of bio-energy and biofuels can support sustainable development while also contributing to climate objectives and improved access to modern energy services. This talk will review some of the main issues, and go into some more detail for the case of sugar crops in southern Africa.

Mr Johnson kicks off his seminar by asking: “What is biomass?” It is not just the ‘4Fs’ – food, feed, fibre and fuel, he says, but also fertiliser, feedstocks, flora and fauna. Because of it’s wide reach into all of these areas and more, biomass production has a fundamental relationship to development through sustainable livelihoods. Biomass was a very calm arena to work in years ago, but now is fraught with controversies, “Which is why I’m losing my hair,” quips Mr Johnson.

He shares some facts and figures on the bio-energy production potential in 2050, showing that the regional availability of biomass resources in Caribbean and Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and to some extent Oceania have great potential. But the intensity or agricultural cultivation remains low in most world regions. (For global shares of biomass and distribution other figures and graphs, see Mr Johnson’s presentation.)

So what about modern bioenergy? That it is not just more efficient but more controllable, is the point about modern bioenergy, says Mr Johnson, for instance, like fossil fuels it can be stored and drawn on at any time. It’s production can also provide jobs and sustainable livelihoods. It is only in the last 5-10 years that biomass has become a global commodity with a developing market.

Biomass and other renewals are more labour-intensive (in terms of jobs per unit of energy) than other energy industries so there is a greater potential in development countries, in countries with high unemployment, according to Mr Johnson. But what are the barriers to modern bioenergy production in developing countries? He dubs the barriers as the ‘Three I’s’ – infrastructure, investment and institutions, an explanation of each is in his presentation.
And of course there is the matter of scale. Scale matters in bioenergy development options – but there are more high risk problems for small scale, rather than large scale, approaches. Ultimately a smalls-scale multi-product or multi-crop approach – eg: sweet sorghum – might be more sustainable in the end.

Mr Johnson then takes a look at a research project in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which investigated land sustainability for sugarcane cultivation. (You can see his slides on this in the presentation). Sweet sorghum is an interesting alternative to sugar cane for small scale projects – it grows in 3-4 months and is good for fibre or ethanol, not so much for sugar. Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi turned out to have very good land suitability for sweet sorghum.

The arguments about which kind of trade in biomass is best have become hotly debated in recent years : Trade or aid?; local or global?; food, feed or fuel ? But Mr Johnson says look at it in a simpler way, in terms of the available land of different types per capita varies around the world. And it turns out that Brazil, SADC and certain parts of Asia are among the areas that have greatest potential as biomass exporting regions.

When it comes to deciding which type of crop is best to grow in terms of fossil energy balance, the most efficient is sugar cane and palm oil. But one of the palm oil grows well in rainforests, there’s a chance of cutting down the forest to grow it, so sugarcane has a physical advantage in that respect (because it doesn’t need those conditions). For yield comparisons on first generation biofuels, see Mr Johnson’s presentation, which also gives some data on land degradation and climate capture.

Mr Johnson ends with a couple of questions: What are you buying when you import biofuels technology or the sun? There is a tension between biofuels produced in developing and other countries, and the best way to import biofuels has to be by harnessing the sun, in other words, by buying from developing countries.