CoP 11 treads middle ground on biofuels

Admits that biofuel technologies may aggravate drivers of biodiversity loss, but stresses on their role in mitigating climate change

By M Suchitra
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageThe ongoing biodiversity convention in Hyderabad seems undecided about the impacts of biofuels on the environment. The eleventh Conference of the Parties (CoP 11) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has merely said that it would review the progress of implementation of its earlier decision to “consider ways and means to promote the positive and minimise or avoid the negative impacts of the production and use of biofuels on biodiversity”.  The decision document, adopted by the Parties on October 12, indicates CBD’s ambivalent stance on biofuels.

Growing evidence from across the world suggests that biofuels have adverse impacts on biodiversity, human rights and food security. In April this year, ActionAid, an international funding organisation, published a report on the impacts of biofuel production and consumption on the poor and the marginalised communities across the world. The report—Fuel for thought—examined the effects of the European Union’s biofuel policies and targets on global and local food security, land rights, climate change, labour rights and women’s rights. The EU has a target of 10 per cent renewable energy in transport by 2020, and 88 per cent of this is expected to come from biofuels.

Biofuels causing food price spike

The ActionAid report has pointed out that mandates and policy support for biofuels, and increasing biomass usage, have created a new demand for crops for fuel which places new pressures on agricultural markets and limited resources like land, water, and nutrients. Many of the key resources needed to produce biofuels are presently used directly as food or as feed for animals, and there is increased pressure both directly and indirectly on food prices, says the report.

With increased demand for biofuels, there is increase in competition not only for key commodities like vegetable oils, staple crops such as maize, soy, wheat and sugar but also for resources needed to grow these crops, including land, soil, nutrients and water. By 2020, prices of oilseeds may be up by 33 per cent, vegetable oils 20 per cent and wheat 16 per cent. Price of maize is likely to increase up to 22 per cent and sugar up to 21 per cent.  The report also gives case studies from different parts of the globe on the negative impacts of increased biofuel production on rural communities. Globally, it is estimated that biofuel production involves at least 50 million hectares (ha) of land grabbed from the rural poor and this has contributed significantly to the global food crisis.

The document, which the Parties adopted, starts by acknowledging the concerns that the development of biofuel technologies “may” result in increased demand for biomass and aggravate drivers of biodiversity loss such as land use and introduction of invasive alien species. But this is followed by a statement in praise of biofuels: “…also acknowledging the potential for biofuels technologies to make a positive contribution to mitigating climate change, another of the main drivers of the biodiversity loss, and generating additional income, especially in rural areas.”

Treading carefully on the middle ground between these two statements, CBD appears essentially neutral towards a force that must now be recognised as one of the leading new drivers of biodiversity loss, points out  Rachel Smolker, Energy Justice Network. “As civil society organisations, we have followed developments around biofuels for some years now, and we have seen only deforestation, expanding industrial monocultures, cultivation of invasive species, development of risky technologies like synthetic biology and escalating global hunger,” she comments in a short-note on the CBD’s stance on biofuel. The CBD seems to have missed a large-number of case study reports from around the world detailing the actual negative impacts of increasing production of biofuels on local communities and biodiversity, she says.

CBD not a food venue: Canada

The report, Food for thought, has quoted the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) as stating that mandates and targets have created a new demand for crops for fuel which “places new pressures on agricultural markets, and biofuels gradually increase the link between energy markets, which are highly volatile, and food markets, which are also volatile, further increasing the volatility of the food market. 

The reluctance of the developed countries to further deliberate on the linkage between biofuels production and the food crisis was quite visible during the discussions in of the working group of the CoP 11.  Canada even went to the extent of saying that “CBD is not a food venue”, which means CBD should not take into consideration the impact of biofuels on food but limit its scope to biodiversity as if these were entirely independent of each other.

But Bolivia, a member of the G 77 Group of the developing countries, reminded the Parties that the CBD forum belongs to the people. And it is indeed a part of the world where one billion people of the world’s seven billion population continue to live in hunger, a situation in which biofuels play a key role.


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  • Good post. There are other

    Good post.

    There are other options like biofuel and conversion of biogas into power. Agave is a care ÔÇô free growth plant which can be grown in millions of hectares of waste land and which produces Biofuel. Already Mexico is using it. Another Care free growth plant is Opuntia which generates Biogas. Biogas can be input to generate power through Biogas Generators. Biogas generators of MW size are available from China. Yet another option is Water Hyacinth for biogas. Water Hyacinth along with animal dung can produce biogas on a large scale and then power. In Kolleru lake in Godavari and Krishna Delta in Andhra Pradesh it is available in 308 Sq. Km for nearly 8 months in a year.
    Crassulacean acid metabolism, also known as CAM photosynthesis, is a carbon fixationpathway that evolved in some plants as an adaptation to arid conditions In a plant using full CAM, the stomata in the leaves remain shut during the day to reduce evapotranspiration, but open at night to collect carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 is stored as the four-carbon acidmalate, and then used during photosynthesis during the day. The pre-collected CO2 is concentrated around the enzyme RuBisCO, increasing photosynthetic efficiency. Agave and Opuntia are the best CAM Plants.
    What is needed in an agrarian country like ours is AGRO INDUSTRIES to utilise local resources and resourcefulness as advocated by Mahatma Gandhiji.
    Shri Narendra Modiji, please consider the above options to generate power in Gujarat on a massive scale.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Researchers find that the

    Researchers find that the agave plant will serve as a biofuel crop to produce ethanol.
    "Agave has a huge advantage, as it can grow in marginal or desert land, not on arable land," and therefore would not displace food crops, says Oliver Inderwildi, at the University of Oxford.
    The majority of ethanol produced in the world is still derived from food crops such as corn and sugarcane. Speculators have argued for years now that using such crops for fuel can drive up the price of food.
    Agave, however, can grow on hot dry land with a high-yield and low environmental impact. The researchers proposing the plantÔÇÖs use have modeled a facility in Jalisco, Mexico, which converts the high sugar content of the plant into ethanol.
    The research, published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, provides the first ever life-cycle analysis of the energy and greenhouse gas balance of producing ethanol with agave. Each megajoule of energy produced from the agave-to-ethanol process resulted in a net emission of 35 grams of carbon dioxide, far below the 85g/MJ estimated for corn ethanol production. Burning gasoline produces roughly 100g/MJ.
    "The characteristics of the agave suit it well to bioenergy production, but also reveal its potential as a crop that is adaptable to future climate change,ÔÇØ adds University of Oxford plant scientist Andrew Smith. ÔÇ£In a world where arable land and water resources are increasingly scarce, these are key attributes in the food versus fuel argument, which is likely to intensify given the expected large-scale growth in biofuel production."
    Here is an excellent analysis on Agave as a biofuel:

    Agave shows potential as biofuel feedstock, Checkbiotech, By Anna Austin, February 11, 2010:

    "Mounting interest in agave as a biofuel feedstock could jump-start the Mexican biofuels industry, according to agave expert Arturo Valez Jimenez.

    Agave thrives in Mexico and is traditionally used to produce liquors such as tequila. It has a rosette of thick fleshy leaves, each of which usually end in a sharp point with a spiny margin. Commonly mistaken for cacti, the agave plant is actually closely related to the lily and amaryllis families. The plants use water and soil more efficiently than any other plant or tree in the world, Arturo said. "This is a scientific factÔÇöthey don't require watering or fertilizing and they can absorb carbon dioxide during the night," he said. The plants annually produce up to 500 metric tons of biomass per hectare, he added.

    Agave fibers contain 65 percent to 78 percent cellulose, according to Jimenez. "With new technology, it is possible to breakdown over 90 percent of the cellulose and hemicellulose structures, which will increase ethanol and other liquid biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass drastically," he said.
    Agave already appeared to be an interesting bioethanol source due to its high sugar content and its swift growth. For the first time Researchers at the universities of Oxford and Sydney have now conducted the first life-cycle analysis of the energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of agave-derived ethanol and present their promising results in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.
    On both life cycle energy and GHG emissions agave scores at least as well as corn, switchgrass and sugarcane, while reaching a similar ethanol output. The big advantages agave has over the before mentioned plants is that it can grow in dry areas and on poor soil, thus practically eliminating their competition with food crops and drastically decreasing their pressure on water resources.
    Plants which use crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), which include the cacti and Agaves, are of particular interest since they can survive for many months without water and when water is available they use it with an efficiency that can be more than 10 times that of other plants, such as maize, sorghum, miscanthus and switchgrass. CAM species include no major current or potential food crops; they have however for centuries been cultivated for alcoholic beverages and low-lignin fibres. They may therefore also be ideal for producing biofuels on land unsuited for food production.
    In M├®xico, there are active research programs and stakeholders investigating Agave spp. as a bioenergy feedstock. The unique physiology of this genus has been exploited historically for the sake of fibers and alcoholic beverages, and there is a wealth of knowledge in the country of M├®xico about the life history, genetics, and cultivation of Agave. The State of Jalisco is the denomination of origin of Agave tequilana Weber var. azul, a cultivar primarily used for the production of tequila that has been widely researched to optimize yields. Other cultivars of Agave tequilana are grown throughout M├®xico, along with the Agave fourcroydes Lem., or henequen, which is an important source of fiber that has traditionally been used for making ropes. The high sugar content of Agave tequilana may be valuable for liquid fuel production, while the high lignin content of Agave fourcroydes may be valuable for power generation through combustion. Along with Agave species described above, some other economically important species include A. salmiana, A. angustiana, A. americana, and A. sisalana. Agave sisalana is not produced in M├®xico, but has been an important crop in regions of Africa and Australia. Information collected here could thus be relevant to semi-arid regions around the world.
    Agave Competitive Advantages
    ´éº Thrives on dry land/marginal land. Most efficient use of soil, water and light.
    ´éº Massive production. Year-around harvesting.
    ´éº Very high yields with very low or no inputs
    ´éº Very high quality biomass and sugars
    ´éº Very low cost of production. Not a commodity, so prices are not volatile
    ´éº Very versatile: biofuels, bioproducts, chemicals
    ´éº World-wide geographical distribution
    ´éº Enhanced varieties are ready

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply