Further debate needed on pros and cons of biofuels, says UN report

Sugar cane used in the production of the biofuel, ethanol

16 October 2009 – A new United Nations report calls for a more sophisticated approach to developing biofuels as an energy option to ensure that it benefits society, the economy and the environment as a whole.

According to the report, the first by the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, some biofuels, such as ethanol from sugar cane, can have positive impacts on greenhouse gas emissions.

Ethanol can lead to emissions reductions of more than 70 per cent when substituted for petrol, as is being done currently in Brazil. However, the way in which biofuels are produced matters in determining whether they are leading to more or less greenhouse gas emissions, added the report.

“Biofuels are neither a panacea nor a pariah but like all technologies they represent both opportunities and challenges,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director. “Therefore, a more sophisticated debate is urgently needed, which is what this first report by the Panel is intended to provide.

“On one level, it is a debate about which energy crops to grow and where and also about the way different countries and biofuel companies promote and manage the production and conversion of plant materials for energy purposes – some clearly are climate friendly while others are highly questionable,” he noted.

Mr. Steiner added that it is also a choice about how humanity best manages its “finite land bank” and balances a range of competing interests in a world of 6 billion people, which is expected to rise to over 9 billion by 2050.

“The report makes it clear that biofuels have a future role, but also underlines that there may be other options for combating climate change, improving rural livelihoods and achieving sustainable development that may, or may not, involve turning ever more crops and crop wastes into liquid fuels,” he said.

Worldwide land use for biofuel crops was about two per cent of global cropland in 2008, or about 36 million hectares.

The report “Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Assessing Biofuels” suggested that governments fit biofuels into an overall strategy encompassing energy, climate, land-use, water and agriculture to ensure their use is beneficial to society, the economy and the environment.


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