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Tuesday, 07 May 2013

Making biofuel production sustainable: UNIDO convenes experts to evaluate sustainability guidelines

Biofuel production can contribute to industrial development and help create jobs. Potentially, biofuels can also play a useful role in tackling the issues of climate change and energy supply.

However, campaigning groups continue to criticize current methods of biofuel production, citing the negative effects on the environment, and on food security and prices.

Can biofuel production be sustainable, and if so, how can this sustainability be assessed? 

Participants at a conference convened by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) discussed the outcomes of a new research study, “Global Assessments and Guidelines for Sustainable Liquid Biofuel Production in Developing Countries”. Around 50 participants from 30 countries, representing governments, research institutions and international organizations, met in Vienna, Austria, recently to share expertise and make policy recommendations.  

“UNIDO sees biofuels sustainability as an issue which needs to be better understood,” explained Pradeep Monga, Director of UNIDO’s Energy and Climate Change Branch, at the opening of the conference. “Projects and programmes need to be better prepared to mitigate negative environmental impacts.” 

Monga stressed that, for UNIDO, renewable energy and climate change mitigation are important activities, with the Organization focusing on projects that bring added value to communities in terms of industrial growth and the development of skills and jobs. “In this sense, bioenergy has been an integral part of our project portfolio, as still more than 10% of the world’s energy consumption is from bioenergy. We need to ensure that biological resources, forests and agricultural land, are used sustainably in the long-term,” Monga added. 

At the UNIDO conference, participants evaluated the Biofuels Screening Toolkit, a major outcome of the research study carried out by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and UNIDO. The research aimed to establish clear guidelines to help developing countries mitigate the negative environmental and/or socio-economic impacts of future biofuel projects, with the overarching aim of developing a tool to assist the GEF with its project funding decisions. 

The Toolkit highlights 11 sustainability indicators that can be used to rate projects without significant risks; those that exhibit potential risks; and those with high risks that cannot be mitigated. In relation to environmental sustainability, the Toolkit examines greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, biodiversity protection, and land and resource-use efficiency, as well as soil and water impacts. Each screening tool lists a set of factors to consider and provides advice on how to rate them.

To assess the Toolkit, experts, including representatives of the European Commission and from Rembio, a non-governmental organization working for sustainable development in Mexico, were invited to review it in comparison to other available tools. Some expressed concerns about how specific regional data would be collected, stating that high-resolution data would be needed to calculate answers to the Toolkit’s questions. Representatives of the GEF sought to dispel these doubts, saying that the organization would “go the extra mile” to carry out activities that would gather country-specific data.

Participants also sought to address the question of how the research and Toolkit could be used for policy and project formulation at a national level. An introduction to different perspectives concerning biofuel strategies and policy options by representatives of five countries underlined the diversity of problems and conditions. As a consequence, many of the experts asked about ways to adapt the Toolkit to each region. During the discussion, Floor van der Hilst from Utrecht University resented three case studies on the impacts of biofuel scale-up in Argentina, Mozambique and Ukraine.

Though minor issues were raised which still need clarification, the overall reception of the Toolkit was very positive. As Diego Masera, Chief of UNIDO’s Renewable Energy Unit concluded, “We are pleased that the conference has been received well by the GEF and government participants who are keen to see biofuels projects get underway in their territories. The Biofuels Screening Toolkit gives us a practical aid in selecting projects, making sure no adverse impacts are caused. This will allow UNIDO to implement biofuel projects that can bring real benefits to local communities, such as employment, self-sufficiency in energy generation and the reduction of poverty.” 

The meeting made it possible to share views on the challenges and possibilities that biofuels face today. Some possible future research synergies arose, for example, between the FAO and Utrecht University. The Toolkit’s positive reception has encouraged UNIDO to test it with a project by the end of 2013. Locations for the projects could be the Ukraine, Thailand or a country in West Africa. 

The GEF also welcomed the Toolkit, pointing out its comprehensiveness compared to other tools available. It intends to share the output of the research project with other implementing agencies of the GEF and with the GEF’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel, in order to promote the use of the screening tool in GEF projects. 

Furthermore the GEF asked UNIDO to publish and disseminate the Toolkit. At the end of the conference, many attendees thanked UNIDO for organizing the event and enabling the networking and exchange of ideas. As Pradeep Monga said at the closing session, “Coming together is a beginning. Staying together is progress. Working together is success!” 

by Mira Kapfinger

Posted May 2013


Further reading: 

Global Assessment and Guidelines for Sustainable Liquid Biofuel Production in Developing Countries - The Global Environment Facility

UNIDO's Biofuels Strategy

Biofuels and Land Grabs - ActionAid

Against the grain: Landgrabbing for biofuels must stop- GRAIN

Biofuels: ethics and policy - Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges - The Royal Society