What's This?
x

Experts from emerging and developing countries debate crucial, timely topics related to nuclear energy, nuclear proliferation, and economic development. Each author contributes an essay per round, for a total of nine essays for the entire Roundtable. This feature was made possible by a three-year grant from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

Climate, food, and biomass energy

Many experts have concluded that, if greenhouse gas concentrations are to be limited while the world's energy demands are nonetheless met, biomass energy will be an indispensable resource. At the same time, climate change is expected to affect agricultural productivity adversely—and 15 percent of people in developing countries, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, already suffer from extreme food insecurity. Below, N.H. Ravindranath of India, Roberto Bissio of Uruguay, and José R. Moreira of Brazil consider this question: How can the potential climate mitigation benefits of devoting arable land to the production of biomass energy be achieved without further undermining food security in the developing world?

The Development and Disarmament Roundtable can also be read in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish.

Round 1

09/24/2013 - 05:21

The devil’s in the details

N.H. Ravindranath
09/26/2013 - 05:31

What biofuels can do

José R. Moreira
09/30/2013 - 08:36

Cut emissions, skip the fake compensation

Roberto Bissio

Round 2

10/04/2013 - 10:39

Think small

N.H. Ravindranath
10/14/2013 - 05:47

Small scale, small contribution

Roberto Bissio
10/18/2013 - 11:02

Good reasons for going big

José R. Moreira

Round 3

10/24/2013 - 08:11

Pursuing many paths

N.H. Ravindranath
11/07/2013 - 03:59

Vested interests impede biofuels progress

José R. Moreira
11/29/2013 - 10:22

Gas guzzlers and wood fires

Roberto Bissio

Round 1

09/24/2013 - 05:21

The devil’s in the details

Bioenergy, because of its potential to mitigate climate change and contribute to energy security and rural development, has attracted increased attention in recent years. It is a highly versatile energy source whose most common applications are heat energy for cooking and biofuels for transportation, but it can also encompass electricity. Biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel can be produced from crops like sugarcane or corn; biomass energy can be derived from (usually woody) feedstock through processes running the gamut from simple combustion in a cookstove to biochemical conversion.

Another advantage of bioenergy is that, compared to fossil fuels, it is distributed equitably across the world and is accessible to communities everywhere—including poor people in rural areas, who tend to be very dependent on traditional biomass-based energy for cooking and heating and even for mechanical applications such as lift irrigation. Traditional biomass is often inefficient, harmful to the environment, and associated with low quality of life, but several modern bioenergy technologies have emerged that can, in an environmentally sustainable way, meet rural people's energy needs. These technologies include efficient biomass cookstoves, biogas systems for cooking and for decentralized power generation, gasification of woody biomass, and biofuels for transportation.

Meanwhile, bioenergy technologies are increasingly being recognized for their potential to mitigate climate change. According to the 2012 Global Energy Assessment, bioenergy is essential if global temperature increases are to be limited to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. In many applications, bioenergy may be able to displace fossil fuels, as with biofuels for transportation. But another critical approach is to combine biomass energy with carbon capture and storage. This technology involves growing crops that absorb carbon dioxide, burning them to produce energy, and capturing and storing the carbon that results from the combustion. Capture and storage of carbon dioxide emissions from bioenergy conversion has the potential to generate negative emissions—to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

But the technology's potential as a mitigation option is still uncertain due to constraints on carbon capture and storage itself, and due to the difficulties associated with producing supplies of biomass. Biomass energy combined with carbon capture and storage must be deployed on a large scale if it is to have a significant impact on global emissions of greenhouse gases; this is true of biofuels as well. Large-scale deployment of these two technologies implies sustained, large-scale production of bioenergy feedstock, and this carries potential implications for food security.

Potential and contention. The food-security implications differ for the two technologies, not least in terms of their feedstock. For biomass energy combined with capture and storage, woody (or ligneous) feedstock is generally required. This can be sourced from tree plantations, but if either croplands or forests were used on a commercial scale for woody biomass production, food security and biodiversity could be adversely affected. However, if sustainable tree plantations were established on degraded land or fallow crop lands, implications for food security would be minimal. And using residues from forests or croplands would have no implications for food security.

Feedstock for biofuels, meanwhile, can be thought of as belonging to two generations: first-generation crops like palm oil (which can be used to produce biodiesel) and sugarcane (which can be used to make ethanol); and next-generation sources such as microalgae (used to produce biodiesel) and woody biomass, tall grasses, and agricultural residues (used for ethanol). First-generation biofuels pose the greater risks to food security, and imply negative environmental effects like reduced biodiversity and increased water usage. These negative effects are likely to be particularly acute in the developing world, where, due to low production costs, the bulk of future biofuel production is likely to occur. So even though biofuels can promote rural development, create rural jobs, and reclaim degraded land, they have become highly contentious.

Nonetheless, technology for converting second-generation feedstock into biofuels holds out substantial promise for avoiding many of the challenges associated with first-generation feedstock. Agricultural or forest residues and short-rotation woody crops could be sourced from marginal or degraded lands. This would be unlikely to have significant implications for food security, livestock feed, and fiber production. Moreover, new biofuel technologies can be expected to provide net benefits in emissions of greenhouse gases.

Taking all this into account, it is difficult to generalize about bioenergy's ability to meet energy needs and mitigate climate change while avoiding adverse effects on food production, biodiversity, and so forth. The impacts of bioenergy use depend on the technology used (biofuel production versus other forms of biomass energy), the feedstock used (forest or crop residues versus food grains, for example), and the scale of production.

09/26/2013 - 05:31

What biofuels can do

Over the last three decades, the amount of land devoted to food crops has increased at a very modest rate, but worldwide food production has expanded significantly. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization expects that patterns will be similar over the coming decades: Food demand through 2050 will increase at a rate of 1.1 percent a year, but this increased demand will mainly be met through productivity gains, with only a small expansion in cropland required. If productivity gains come in below expectations, there are large amounts of land available that could be used for crop expansion. Availability of land is not a major obstacle to the expansion of bioenergy production.

But climate change may have a negative impact on biomass productivity (that is, on production of agricultural crops and bioenergy feedstock) due both to higher temperatures and to reduced water availability. Some argue that the effects of these changes could be especially severe in the developing world. Today's temperatures in tropical areas, according to this argument, are very near the optimum for growing tropical crops, and higher temperatures would seriously harm productivity. Temperate regions, on the other hand, might actually experience higher yields along with higher temperatures. Since much of the developing world is located in the tropics, the effect of higher temperatures would be especially severe in poorer countries. But one must tread carefully here. If average temperatures increase 2 degrees Celsius or more, it is certain that the environment will change in many ways—but predicting with accuracy how specific regions will be affected is very difficult. It is not so easy to conclude that decreases in agricultural production would be most pronounced in developing countries.

Nevertheless, if one assumes that higher average temperatures around the world will affect biomass production negatively, the question then becomes to what extent bioenergy can mitigate climate change. Bioenergy can be produced in good ways or bad ways. But if environmentally friendly technologies are used and proper policies are in place, evidence suggests that bioenergy can significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and meaningfully mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.

My colleague Sergio Pacca and I have calculated that 70 million hectares of sugarcane planted worldwide could—by 2030, when the world car fleet will amount to 1.6 billion vehicles—replace all gasoline and diesel used in cars and trucks (as long as the vehicles are of the plug-in hybrid variety). Sugarcane could also generate the electricity that these hybrid vehicles would consume. A huge amount of carbon dioxide emissions could be avoided this way.

Some experts believe that, without heavy reliance on bioenergy, it will be impossible to keep planetary warming below 2 degrees, but that if bioenergy is used properly, and other mitigation options are also pursued, the 2-degree threshold might not be crossed (in which case climate change would cause no serious problems for food supply). Several studies have determined that, if fossil fuel use does not decline quickly enough to limit warming to 2 degrees or less, it may be necessary to combine bioenergy with carbon capture and storage in order to bring down concentrations of greenhouse gases. This might mean that greenhouse gases would be removed from the atmosphere through the growth of crops, with the crops then burned to produce energy and the resulting carbon captured and stored. But biofuels could be an important part of this approach as well.

To begin with, biofuels made from certain feedstocks—mainly sugarcane, but also corn, animal grease, and properly planted palm oil—produce carbon emissions lower than those for gasoline and diesel over their full life cycle. Bringing carbon capture and storage into the picture might in some cases result in negative emissions. This may be the case with sugar fermentation, a process necessary for producing ethanol from sugar, starch, or even cellulosic material. During fermentation, glucose is essentially split into two products: ethanol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is typically vented into the atmosphere. But with no further treatment, this very pure carbon dioxide stream could be sent underground into saline aquifers or empty gas or oil reservoirs. This would be one of the least expensive ways to carry out carbon capture and storage, as virtually the only action required is storage. This technology is being pioneered in Decatur, Illinois, and another project in Brazil has received approval from the Global Environmental Facility. Combining biofuels with carbon capture and storage is one of the very few technologies that can remove carbon from the atmosphere and bring carbon concentrations down.

But how much climate mitigation could already have been achieved if nations had begun pursuing bioenergy on a large scale as long ago as 1980? (At that time, examples of good bioenergy projects already existed, and it was around then that publics began to learn about the possibility of climate change.) My calculations suggest that by 2015 it would have been possible, through expansion of sugarcane-based biofuels alone, to cut annual carbon emissions by nearly 9 percent. Nothing can be done today about decisions made in 1980. But in the years to come, I believe that bioenergy must be a major strategy if temperatures are to be prevented from reaching truly dangerous levels.

09/30/2013 - 08:36

Cut emissions, skip the fake compensation

In May of this year, the measurement station atop the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii detected in the atmosphere, over the course of 24 hours, an average carbon dioxide concentration of 400 parts per million. Carbon levels have probably not been as high as that in the past 3 million years—since before human beings existed.

Human activity is responsible for the high levels of carbon dioxide, but the majority of humans burn relatively little carbon. According to the UN Development Programme, the planet's poorest 1 billion people are responsible for only 3 percent of carbon emissions. (Many of them, however, live in rural areas and urban slums that are highly vulnerable to threats associated with climate change.) Meanwhile, the 1.26 billion people who live in nations that belong to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are responsible for 42 percent of the carbon added to the atmosphere each year, and their nations are overwhelmingly responsible for the carbon that has been added in the past.

Basic values such as justice and respect for human dignity make it obvious that the people most responsible for carbon in the atmosphere—the richest one-seventh of them—should both burn less carbon and pay most to address the problems that use of fossil fuels has created. But burning fossil fuels is highly addictive. People who are hooked on it will try every trick they can think of to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

One such trick is to burn carbon derived from Earth's surface (biomass) instead of carbon deposits extracted from underground (fossil fuels). The idea appears at first to make sense, as biomass when burned emits the same amount of carbon as has been stored during the biomass's growth phase; this should result in no net increase of atmospheric carbon. But things are not so simple when the idea is applied on an industrial scale and all inputs and indirect effects are taken into account.

The European Environment Agency Scientific Committee argues that bioenergy "is meant to reduce [emissions of greenhouse gases] but … increases the amount of carbon in the air … if harvesting the biomass decreases the amount of carbon stored in plants and soils, or reduces ongoing carbon sequestration." And many have argued that biofuels in particular actually use more energy than they produce. Moreover, replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy implies that an enormous amount of agricultural or forest land will be diverted to the purpose. Massive deforestation and land clearing—which eliminate carbon sinks and add to total carbon concentrations—are already occurring in Indonesia and other countries due to the increasing cultivation of commodities like palm oil.

Various sensible approaches for mitigating climate change are available. Modern agricultural practices, which are responsible for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, could be replaced with organic agriculture, which can be carried out in a carbon-neutral manner and might even store large amounts of carbon in the soil. But this would require the world's wealthy to change their consumption habits, for instance by eating less meat. Forests can be regrown so they can function as carbon sinks—though this has a net effect only as long as forests are expanding. Europe's forests, which have been recovering since the 1950s after centuries of deforestation, have functioned as carbon sinks over recent decades but are showing early signs of saturation.

What's really necessary, however, is for people—especially in the wealthy world—to reduce their carbon emissions. To achieve this, it is probably necessary to introduce carbon taxes in wealthy countries. But the developed world's big emitters continue to seek other solutions. It is as if a cigarette smoker, rather than giving up tobacco, decided to move to the suburbs to breathe cleaner air. This is a fake form of compensation, and bioenergy is similar. It creates the illusion of a greener economy. It allows people to postpone tough decisions. But whereas smokers who don't give up cigarettes mainly harm themselves, wealthy countries that consume massive amounts of fossil fuels pass the harm to innocent people.

If nothing changes, it may be just as well to abandon any pretense of respect for values such as justice and human dignity. Those values have suffered for a long time in any case, as nations have failed to live up to the "common but differentiated responsibilities" that are discussed in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Round 2

10/04/2013 - 10:39

Think small

In his Round One essay, José R. Moreira focused on biofuels' potential to meet the need for transportation fuel while also mitigating climate change. He provided a largely positive view of biofuels, not surprising in light of the prominence that biofuels have assumed in his nation of Brazil. Roberto Bissio discussed the potential adverse impacts of bioenergy projects on forests and agricultural lands, while also devoting attention to developed countries' responsibility to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. My colleagues maintain starkly different views, but they have one thing in common so far: large-scale bioenergy projects. I would argue that small-scale projects—because of their potential to mitigate climate change and support sustainable rural development, without undermining food security or incurring unmanageable expense—deserve a great deal of attention.

The International Energy Agency estimates that 2.7 billion people worldwide lack access to clean cooking facilities and that 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity. Most people who suffer from energy poverty—84 percent—live in rural areas. Bioenergy, the agency argues, can play a significant role in achieving global access to clean energy, notably among the rural poor. An array of modern, small-scale technologies can contribute to this effort. These include efficient cookstoves, biogas for cooking and village electrification, biomass gasifiers, and decentralized cogeneration systems that utilize bagasse (the fiber that remains after liquid is extracted from sugarcane). These biomass-based options, partly by reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that result from unsustainable biomass harvesting, could achieve a 1-gigaton reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions. They could also reduce, by 60 to 90 percent, emissions of black carbon—essentially, soot—which is blamed for 2 million deaths each year.

A detailed World Bank study of Mexico covering the period 2009 to 2030 determined that adoption of advanced biomass stoves could, while producing a net economic benefit, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 19.4 megatons a year—a larger reduction than could be achieved by any other action in the residential sector. A study in India, meanwhile, compared the mitigation potential of decentralized bioenergy for village electrification with the mitigation potential of carbon sequestration through forestry. The study concluded that, over 100 years, substituting biomass energy for diesel fuel would prevent 92.5 tons of carbon per hectare from entering the atmosphere. The forestry projects would achieve less. Long-rotation projects would keep 45.2 metric tons of carbon per hectare out of the atmosphere, while short-rotation projects would keep only 23.9 tons per hectare out of the atmosphere.

Decentralized applications of small-scale, modern bioenergy options—particularly in rural parts of developing countries—generally represent win-win approaches. They can provide benefits along the climatic, environmental, and social dimensions while avoiding adverse effects on food security. In discussions of biomass energy, it is important to avoid excessive focus on the large-scale production of biofuels for transportation. Other approaches exist—approaches that can mitigate climate change while presenting only minimal implications for the environment and food production.

10/14/2013 - 05:47

Small scale, small contribution

In his Round Two essay, N.H. Ravindranath argued in favor of small-scale bioenergy technologies such as efficient cookstoves and electrifying villages with biogas. These technologies, he wrote, can mitigate climate change, support rural development, reduce soot, and so forth. To be sure, the technologies that Ravindranath discussed will be welcomed around the world if they prove effective and appropriate—and if patent protections do not prove an obstacle to their adoption. But the resulting reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be small.

Why? Because poor people, whose carbon emissions these technologies would reduce, produce very little carbon in the first place. As I mentioned in Round One, the planet's poorest 1 billion people are responsible for only 3 percent of global carbon emissions. The 1.26 billion people whose countries belong to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development account for 42 percent of emissions. The rich, if they reduced their emissions by just 8 percent, could achieve more climate mitigation than the poor could achieve by reducing their emissions to zero. The rich could manage this 8 percent reduction by altering their lifestyles in barely noticeable ways. For the poor, a reduction of 100 percent would imply permanent misery.

Ravindranath discussed a study carried out in India that examined the climate mitigation benefits of substituting biomass energy for diesel fuel. "Over 100 years," he reported, "[this approach] would prevent 92.5 metric tons of carbon per hectare from entering the atmosphere." One hundred years! The average American is responsible for 17.6 tons of carbon emissions in a single year. If one imagines an American household of four that somehow existed for 100 years, this household would need to reduce its emissions by only 1.31 percent to achieve 92.5 metric tons of reduced carbon emissions. A reduction so small could easily be achieved with more efficient kitchens or cars, better insulation, or a bit more bike-riding. Surely this approach represents a better bargain for all concerned than does devoting a hectare of Indian land to producing feedstock for biomass energy, when that land might be put to use feeding Indian families.

I would also point out that biomass energy is a component of any serious strategy for organic agriculture, a practice I strongly recommended in Round One. Peasants around the world have been practicing sustainable agriculture for centuries—without consuming fossil fuels and therefore without harming the climate. It was only the development of "modern" agriculture—highly mechanized, and dependent on intensive fertilizer and pesticide use—that transformed agriculture into a sector that today is responsible for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

It is not the poor whose emissions need to be cut. Suggesting otherwise implicitly blames them for a problem they did not create, a problem from which they are already suffering disproportionately. Indeed, the heroes of climate mitigation ought to be—instead of engineers who develop new technologies—the traditional, organic agriculturalists who use biomass energy in the same responsible ways that their forebears have used it for centuries.

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.

Round 3

10/24/2013 - 08:11

Pursuing many paths

If biomass energy is to contribute meaningfully to climate mitigation—without posing unacceptable risks to food security—a multi-pronged approach is necessary. Bioenergy programs must be pursued on scales both large and small, and in the developed and developing worlds alike.

In Round Two, I focused on small-scale bioenergy projects in the developing world—on the contributions they can make to development and the carbon emissions they can prevent. My Roundtable colleagues, in their own Round Two essays, criticized this approach. José R. Moreira argued, as he had in Round One, in favor of large-scale bioenergy systems, biofuels in particular. Roberto Bissio, who is highly skeptical of many forms of bioenergy, criticized small bioenergy projects because he feels they deflect attention from the need for reduced emissions in countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

I acknowledge that bioenergy projects must be carried out on a large scale to achieve significant short-term cuts in emissions. But short-term cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions aren't the only goal. Long-term emissions count as well, as do food security and development. Small-scale bioenergy technologies can contribute along all of these dimensions. And of course it is true that short-term efforts to reduce emissions must focus on nations where emissions are now highest (mostly developed countries, but a few developing ones as well). But one must also remember that developing countries are now putting in place infrastructure that will supply their energy for a long time. It is important that they adopt sustainable energy strategies that do not lock them into using fossil fuels. Small-scale bioenergy projects are one such strategy.

Biomass technologies, whether large-scale or small-scale, should be assessed on their individual merits and pursued in the places where they are appropriate. Large projects are appropriate for countries where land can be devoted to producing biomass feedstock without harming food production, biodiversity, and water supply. These projects may include, among other things, biofuels and multi-megawatt biomass power systems. But in rural areas where poor energy access hinders development, small-scale bioenergy systems will often be appropriate. As I discussed in Round Two, efficient biomass cookstoves and biogas systems for cooking could help meet the energy needs of the 2.7 billion people who lack access to clean cooking facilities. And regions rich in biomass but poor in fossil fuels might be able to use small-scale biomass energy systems to produce liquid transportation fuels—and also, as a byproduct, substantial quantities of cost-competitive liquid petroleum gas for cooking. Such systems could integrate carbon capture and storage, thus contributing to climate mitigation.

No simple solutions are available for mitigating climate change and meeting the world's increasing need for food and energy. All nations, whether developed or developing, must explore various avenues for climate mitigation, whether large-scale or small-scale. In any event, bioenergy technologies, along with carbon capture and storage, will be an integral component of future strategies to meet energy needs and keep global warming within the acceptable range of 1.5 to 2 degrees.

11/07/2013 - 03:59

Vested interests impede biofuels progress

I would like to devote my final Roundtable essay to examining the reasons that biofuels are not being adopted as widely as they deserve to be.

In the transportation sector, biofuels are the only renewable alternative to fossil fuels that will be widely available in the short term. They can make a significant contribution to mitigation of climate change. They can reduce rural poverty by establishing new markets for agricultural products, and can help developing countries advance both economically and technologically. They can also moderate fossil fuel prices by providing competition.

Despite all these advantages, biofuels have not yet reached their market potential. Political constraints are the major reason for this, and much political opposition is motivated by a desire on the part of market incumbents—those who profit from petroleum—to protect their economic positions.

It is easy to see why biofuels elicit strong opposition from those with a stake in fossil fuels. Transportation fuels are an enormous market, and still a growing one, but the lion's share of today's transportation fuel comes in just two forms—gasoline and diesel. These are produced from just one feedstock—petroleum. And because cars and trucks circulate frequently among countries, fuels must be produced according to universal specifications. So transportation fuels are essentially a fungible commodity, with little to distinguish them from the customer's perspective. For those who profit from petroleum, the possibility that biofuels might begin to displace fossil fuels must seem a pressing danger. Transportation fuel would become like electricity—a commodity that, derived from many sources and distributed across countries and regions, allows for free competition.

A transition from fossil fuels to biofuels would produce many winners, and some losers too. The losers would include not just corporations and individuals but nations as well. As in many such situations, the winners—no matter how numerous—are likely to be quiet. The losers may be few but will be extremely vocal.

The wrong direction. The European Commission recently proposed setting a new cap on the share of renewable transportation fuels that can be accounted for by food-based biofuels (as opposed to cellulose-based fuels). This proposal's fate in the European Parliament is uncertain, but political uncertainty does little to encourage investment in biofuels or allow societies to take advantage of biofuels' benefits. Meanwhile, a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations dedicated significant attention to sweet sorghum as a feedstock for biofuels; others tout feedstocks such as jatropha and algae. Promoting these raw materials, though, only perpetuates the dominance of liquid fossil fuels because it diverts attention from the feedstocks—such as sugarcane and palm oil—that truly have the potential to compete.

Unfortunately, interest in biofuels seems to be declining. Today, only the United States and Brazil are making really significant efforts in biofuels for transportation (though more modest efforts are under way in a number of other countries).

Biofuels represent an excellent opportunity to manage global warming and reduce poverty at the same time. They are easy to produce and distribute. They are ready for use right now. But political interests prevent biofuels from gaining the market penetration they deserve—even though immediate ways to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are urgently needed. Making matters worse, much attention that should be paid to biofuels is going instead to shale gas, another fossil fuel that serves the interests of potential "losers." One can only hope that discussion of these issues will open people's minds to the merits of biofuels.

11/29/2013 - 10:22

Gas guzzlers and wood fires

In Round Three, N.H. Ravindranath wrote that "all nations, whether developed or developing, must explore various avenues for climate mitigation, whether large-scale or small-scale." This is not what the international community has agreed to. The Kyoto Protocol treats developed and developing countries differently, requiring the former to reduce emissions but providing the latter space for continued development. This distinction acknowledges that climate change results from carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and that developing countries have had no significant role in causing these accumulations. Therefore, they are treated differently from the countries whose current prosperity was built on carbon emissions that are now harming the whole planet.

Climate negotiations are difficult—to a large extent because some countries, even as they continue driving their sport utility vehicles and running their air conditioners, attempt to deny their historic responsibilities. If they expect reductions in carbon emissions from poor nations, they expect poor people to abandon any notion of electrifying their houses. As it is, many of the poor barely emit enough carbon to cook their food.

So Ravindranath errs when he insists that the poor must be included in climate mitigation efforts. Not only would the approach he suggests be ineffective—the poor emit so little carbon to begin with—but it would mislead the public into thinking that the poor, with their inefficient wood fires, bear some blame for the climate problem.

Meanwhile, Jose R. Moreira argues—convincingly—that production of biofuels in Brazil can be environmentally and economically sound. Brazil enjoys ample sunlight and land availability, along with low population density. These conditions are not found in many places. Indeed, Moreira notes that "only the United States and Brazil are making really significant efforts in biofuels for transportation"—and one might add that Brazil would be alone on the list were it not for massive biofuels subsidies in the United States.

But where Moreira goes wrong is in devoting so much attention to the supply side of biofuels for transportation without questioning current patterns of liquid-fuel consumption. In climate terms, a liter of fuel has the same impact whether it is used to power a developing-world tractor or a developed-world sport utility vehicle. In development terms, the two are not the same at all. But beyond that, biofuels accomplish nothing for the climate if they ultimately promote consumption patterns that are incompatible with the zero-carbon economy that must be established in the not-too-distant future.

Finally, in response to Moreira's dismissal of organic agriculture's potential in climate mitigation, which he justifies on the basis of organic agriculture's lower productivity, I would point out that this productivity disadvantage is more than compensated for by factors that Moreira doesn't address. For example, organic agriculture prevents carbon emissions because it doesn't depend on synthetic fertilizers. It also sequesters carbon in the ground and enriches soils, making them more climate-adaptable.