Chapter: Chapter 5
Biofuels, a renewable form of energy produced from plants or waste, have attracted significant attention in Asia because of their potential to reduce GHG emissions, promote national energy security, and revitalise rural economies. However, the reality is more complex, and more nuanced policies are needed. In particular, the rush to promote biofuels could be counterproductive if they are not produced by sustainable means. Research based on a life cycle assessment approach shows that first generation biofuels (i.e. from food crops, oil palm, sugarcane and other crops) could produce more energy than they consume in the production process and reduce GHG emissions, but this depends on the production process including energy and fertiliser inputs, and the nature of any land use changes. Inappropriate production methods or land use changes (e.g. destroying forests to plant biofuel crops) could result in increased GHG emissions. Worse, by competing with food production, biofuels may increase the price of basic food items, making them unaffordable to the poor, and trigger new agricultural lands to be opened up through deforestation. Use of oil-bearing plants, like jatropha, to avoid the food-fuel conflict by utilising supposed “wastelands” may deprive landless poor farmers of common grazing land and offer no reversion to food consumption during times of drought or other food shortages. It is also questionable whether its production could be limited to wastelands.
Subsidising unsustainably produced biofuels or mandating their blending into existing transportation fuels could be counterproductive, especially on a large scale. Global trade in biofuels may help developed countries in Europe to meet their Kyoto Protocol commitments but unintentionally accelerate deforestation in tropical Asian forests.
Second generation biofuels have significantly more potential for reducing GHG emissions and avoiding the food-fuel conflict. They can be produced from a wider range of sources including agricultural, forest, and some municipal and other waste, and microalgae. The potential to convert waste to liquid fuel is particularly attractive. Unfortunately, the chemical conversion processes are more complicated, probably more costly, and not yet commercially viable. Even if the technology becomes commercially viable, the policy challenge will be to organise a collection system and address the issue of transport costs. Nevertheless, additional research and development should be devoted to this avenue rather than blindly continuing to follow the short term, easier path of converting existing crops into bioethanol and biodiesel.
In the near term, the policy priority should be to promote sustainable production methods for biofuel feedstocks, especially avoiding direct or indirect deforestation. This should start with sustainability standards and certification. Asian countries should conduct their own biofuel related research since their conditions are different. Trade related policies should not be prioritised until sustainability issues have been resolved. Biofuels are not a silver bullet, and they need to be placed in the context of comprehensive energy policies, which include conservation and other renewable energy forms.
IGES White Paper
Climate Change Policies in the Asia-Pacific: Re-Uniting Climate Change and Sustainable Development
Chapter: Chapter 5