Biofuel production based on agricultural commodities increased more than threefold from 2000 to 2007, and now covers nearly two percent of the world’s consumption of transport fuels. The growth is expected to continue, but the contribution of liquid biofuels (mostly ethanol and biodiesel) to transport energy, and even more so, to global energy use will remain limited.
Despite the limited importance of liquid biofuels in terms of global energy supply, the demand for agricultural feedstocks (sugar, maize, oilseeds) for liquid biofuels will continue to grow over the next decade and perhaps beyond, putting upward pressure on food prices.
Opportunities for the poor
If developing countries can reap the benefits of biofuel production, and if those benefits reach the poor, higher demand for biofuels could contribute to rural development.
“Opportunities for developing countries to take advantage of biofuel demand would be greatly advanced by the removal of the agricultural and biofuel subsidies and trade barriers that create an artificial market and currently benefit producers in OECD countries at the expense of producers in developing countries,” Diouf said.
Other policy measures driving the rush to liquid biofuels, such as mandated blending of biofuels with fossil fuels, as well as tax incentives, have created an artificially rapid growth in biofuel production. These measures have high economic, social and environmental costs and should also be reviewed, according to the report.
Growing demand for biofuels and the resulting higher agricultural commodity prices offer important opportunities for some developing countries. Agriculture could become the growth engine for hunger reduction and poverty alleviation.
Production of biofuel feedstocks may create income and employment, if particularly poor small farmers receive support to expand their production and gain access to markets. Promoting smallholder participation in crop production, including for biofuel, requires investment in infrastructure, research, rural finance, market information and institutions and legal systems.
Among the risks, however, food security concerns loom large. High agricultural commodity prices are already having a negative impact on developing countries that are highly dependent on imports to meet their food requirements.
Particularly at risk are poor urban consumers and poor net food buyers in rural areas. Many of the world’s poor spend more than half of their incomes on food. “Decisions about biofuels should take into consideration the food security situation but also the availability of land and water,” Diouf said. “All efforts should aim at preserving the utmost goal of freeing humanity from the scourge of hunger,” he stressed.
When looking at the environmental dimension, the balance is not always positive. “Expanded use and production of biofuels will not necessarily contribute as much to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as was previously assumed,” the report finds. While some biofuel feedstocks, such as sugar, can generate significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, this is not the case for many other feedstocks.
The largest impact of biofuels on greenhouse gas emissions is determined by land-use change. “Changes in land use – for example deforestation to meet growing demand for agricultural products – are a great threat to land quality, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions,” Diouf noted.
Sustainability criteria based on internationally agreed standards could help to improve the environmental footprint of biofuels, the report states, but they should not create new trade barriers for developing countries.
The next generation of biofuels currently under development but not yet commercially available, using feedstocks such as wood, tall grasses, forestry and crop residues, could improve the fossil energy and greenhouse gas balance of biofuels.
“There seems to be a case for directing expenditures on biofuels more towards research and development, especially on second-generation technologies, which, if well designed and implemented, could hold more promise in terms of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions with less pressure on the natural resource base,” Diouf said.