As the demand for biofuels surges with over one billion people living without access to electricity, a new United Nations report released today cautions that the world’s energy needs must be met in a sustainable and environmentally sound manner.
The report from UN-Energy, an inter-agency body established to coordinate the world body’s work in the realm of energy, is entitled “Sustainable Energy: A Framework for Decision Makers” and was funded by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The study is the first of its kind to examine the issue of bioenergy through the lens of nine issues, including poverty, health, food security, agriculture, climate change, finance and trade.
“We tried to create the framework to discuss it really all together because they need to be seen together,” Gustavo Best, Vice Chair of UN-Energy, said at a press briefing for the report’s launch in New York.
Bioenergy is produced from biofuels – solid fuels, biogas, liquid fuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel – which come from crops such as sugar cane and beet, maize and energy grass or from fuel wood, charcoal, agricultural wastes and by-products, forestry residues, livestock manure and others.
The report underscores the many benefits that bioenergy provides in reducing poverty, improving access to energy and promoting rural development.
A surge in oil prices has lead some of the world’s poorest countries to spend six times as much on petroleum as they do on health care, and thus bioenergy “can create a lot of opportunities,” Alexander Müller, Assistant Director-General of FAO, told reporters at the briefing.
“In this report, we provide a framework for the worldwide use of bioenergy, not only for the developed and industrialized world, for mitigation of climate change, but also for the poorest people to get access to a modern form of electricity.”
However, it warns that “unless new policies are enacted to protect threatened lands, secure socially acceptable land use, and steer bioenergy development in a sustainable direction overall, the environmental and social damage could in some cases outweigh the benefits.”
In the realm of food security, for example, price increases in major biofuel sources such as sugar, palm oil and soybeans could drive up the prices of basic foods.
These detrimental possibilities must be weighed against the tremendous benefits bioenergy stands to offer, Mr. Best observed.
“The biofuel market offers a new and fast-growing opportunity for agricultural producers and could contribute significantly to higher incomes and could support higher productivity growth in agriculture with positive implications for food availability, sustainability and access,” he said.
Bioenergy could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives annually. In developing countries, the “kitchen killer” – or smoke inhalation from cooking with fuels such as coal and biomass, or wood, dung and crop residues – claims more lives annually than does malaria.
At the national level, suggestions made to decision makers include creating bioenergy policies that take into account availability, access, stability and utilization. It also recommends that governments weigh the economic and social costs of subsidizing bioenergy sources, in particular, liquid biofuels.
Meanwhile, the study proposes at the global level that signatories to the Conventions on Biological Diversity and on Combating Desertification consider opportunities for the sustainable cultivation and utilization of energy crops. It also suggests that greater emphasis is placed on promoting research on the social, scientific, technological, economic, policy and environmental facets of bioenergy development.
Today’s report release coincided with the Commission on Sustainable Development – with long-term energy solutions, together with the interlinked issues of climate change, industrial development and air pollution, at the core of its agenda – which is in the midst of its two-week session.