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Symposium 2009

Proposal - Bioenergy and Land Use in Developing Countries

The Challenge

Food security and promoting modern uses of biomass as a source of energy are two key goals in developing countries. Are these conflicting interests impossible to reconcile or two ends of a common st ...

Food security and promoting modern uses of biomass as a source of energy are two key goals in developing countries. Are these conflicting interests impossible to reconcile or two ends of a common strategy?

Biomass is the most important source of energy in many developing countries, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Pros and Cons of bioenergy are not the same everywhere: At one end of the spectrum, countries with a large land endowment relative to the size of their population like Brazil operate large-scale industrial bioenergy production. At the other end, traditional uses of bioenergy prevail in low income countries with a poorly developed transport and energy infrastructure (DR Congo for example has a share of over 95 % of traditional bioenergy use in its energy balance (Cf. http://www.globalbioenergy.org/fileadmin/user_upload/gbep/docs/2007_events/press_G8/Bioenergy_Facts_and_Figures_01.pdf)). Hence solutions to the development process and the role of bioenergy need to be assessed in a differentiated manner.

Auditing industrial bioenergy production
In countries where land and water resources are abundant and food production can meet local demand, industrial bioenergy production may well be an option to limit dependency on fossil energy and to fight climate change if it is competitive with fossil fuel prices or if it can compete with other climate mitigation options. Nevertheless, large-scale bioenergy production also bears risks. Recent studies (Cf. Fargione, Joseph; Hill, Jason; Tilman, David; Polasky, Stephen; Hawthorne, Peter (2008). Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt. Science, 319, 1235-1238) put into question whether biomass-based energy could have any potential to reduce CO2 emissions at all if virgin land is converted into cropland for biomass production. It could take over a hundred years to “pay back” the emissions debt caused by the land-use change if tropical rainforest is cleared for cultivating energy crops. Another problem is the – probably irreversible – loss of biodiversity. To avoid these direct effects a certification scheme is needed that takes into account the actual greenhouse gas savings obtained from the use of bioenergy. In order to also avoid indirect land-use effects certification schemes need to be extended to all agricultural production activities, i.e. it would need to include food and industrial biomass production as well. Such a global land use control system might well limit significantly the expansion of the world’s agricultural area devoted to bioenergy production.

Modernizing traditional uses of bioenergy
The situation is different in countries whose energy supply relies highly on the traditional use of bioenergy, for example firewood. Here, bioenergy is used in a very inefficient and unsustainable way, leading to – or aggravating – desertification-related problems and to a diminished potential for food production. These problems are especially severe in regions that are afflicted by hunger anyway since for farmers in such regions the lack of modern energy services limits agricultural productivity and low productivity limits the access to modern energy. Modernizing the small-scale use of bioenergy is a possibility to improve the quality and availability of energy services and simultaneously provide the opportunities for an improvement in agricultural productivity.

Advancing farming techniques
Adapting the use of bioenergy to each country’s particularities provides opportunities to develop rural areas and could open up access to larger markets. Furthermore, higher agricultural productivity resulting from the use of modern farming techniques can expand the available land area for both food and bioenergy production. Modern bioenergy production could then even contribute to higher food security on a local and global scale. The fact that agricultural prices are currently on a high level provides incentives for strengthening the agricultural sector: costly food imports could be reduced and exports become more profitable.

Given this background, countries should carefully analyse whether the development of a bioenergy industry will actually yield benefits in the long run – as has been shown they are not a priori given. Necessary regulations and policy measures will highly depend on the regional conditions. From a global sustainability point of view the use of bioenergy for climate mitigation purposes is only justified if the greenhouse gas savings are accounted for, e.g. in a certification scheme for biomass.

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