10/18/2013 - 11:02

Good reasons for going big

In his Round One essay, N.H. Ravindranath discussed the uncertainties that surround using biomass as a major energy source, and devoted roughly equal time to the advantages of bioenergy and to the risks associated with inappropriate production of biomass feedstock. Ravindranath's approach seems appropriate to drafting a high-impact document of the sort that requires approval from multiple authorities in a number of countries. But perhaps in a Roundtable such as this, one needn't demonstrate such rigorous evenhandedness. Biomass energy faces serious obstacles, including traditional energy suppliers' modest level of interest in it. Declining to take a clear stand on bioenergy in some sense poses an obstacle to taking advantage of bioenergy's benefits.

I do agree with Ravindranath that exploiting biomass for energy requires care, and in fact this point is among the main conclusions of the 2011 special report on renewable energy and climate mitigation produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As I wrote in Round One, bioenergy can be produced in good ways or bad ways. If the good paths rather than the bad ones are followed, significant advantages will accrue.

Part of following the right path is assessing biomass energy's potential on a region-specific basis. In some areas, the availability of rural labor, land, water, and sunshine makes it possible to generate large amounts of bioenergy at a reasonable cost. Other regions are unsuitable for bioenergy production because one or more of these elements is missing. This is one reason that bioenergy, while it can help mitigate climate change, cannot (as the IPCC has repeatedly emphasized) represent the only solution.

In Round Two, Ravindranath took a "small-is-beautiful" approach toward bioenergy, arguing that Roberto Bissio and I, in Round One, had concentrated excessively on large-scale bioenergy projects. But I stand by my emphasis on these large-scale undertakings. Why? Because decades of effort have been expended on bioenergy projects, and it is mostly the large projects that have thrived.

But supporting large-scale projects does not mean forgetting the rural poor, on whom Ravindranath's second essay focused in part. Indeed, I would argue that large-scale bioenergy projects can do a great deal to alleviate rural poverty. It is useful to remember that the poor are poor, to a significant extent, because profitable markets don't exist where they live for selling what they are capable of producing—food. And urban markets for the rural poor's agricultural produce are often saturated and highly competitive. Bioenergy markets are different. Urban residents, who now represent more than half the world's population, have the economic capacity to purchase bioenergy. This market is not saturated, and it is open to the rural poor. Big bioenergy projects such as those that produce ethanol from sugarcane or biodiesel from food crops create many job opportunities, and give the rural poor a chance to achieve a decent standard of living as entrepreneurs or as employees of large bioenergy companies. (Incidentally, I see no disadvantage in working for someone else. The vast majority of white-collar workers are employees, not entrepreneurs, so why should one expect rural people to restrict themselves to caring for a small piece of land?)

No trick. Bissio in Round One noted that some bioenergy projects can increase the amount of carbon in the air. He is correct—producing biomass energy involves complex processes that, if poorly managed, can add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than even fossil fuels do. But it is also true that some bioenergy projects are carried out in environmentally sustainable ways. These are the projects that ought to be replicated. If they are, biomass energy will not be, as Bissio portrayed it, a "trick … to avoid withdrawal symptoms" from fossil fuels.

As an alternative to relying on biomass energy for climate mitigation, Bissio proposed organic agriculture. Unfortunately, some rather large obstacles prevent organic agriculture from being practiced on the scale that Bissio envisions. For one thing, organic food is often significantly more expensive than "conventional" food. But more than that, organic farming produces yields only 80 percent as high as conventional practices. This means that, if all the world's farming were carried out organically, 25 percent more land would have to be cultivated, amounting to 375 million additional hectares. This implies higher emissions of greenhouse gases—much higher than are associated with the roughly 30 million hectares of land that were used in 2010 to produce bioenergy feedstock.