Energy PolicyPolicymakers Should End Support for Large-scale Biofuel Production and Use

Modern biofuels can help societies to become less dependent on fossil fuels. Many scientists and politicians, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the German government, accordingly view biofuels as an important tool on the path to a more climate-friendly energy system. Yet biofuels have a patchy record of performance relative to expectations, as a special edition of the journal Energy Policy shows.

Titled "Scaling up Biofuels? A Critical Look at Expectations, Performance and Governance", the special issue offers a critical examination of the benefits of biofuels: Is the expansion of bioenergy production contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? Is it creating high quality jobs? Does it promote rural development? How do actors from the political community and civil society deal with the risks? In this special issue, researchers draw on their analyses to make recommendations for a "more ethical approach to the planning and implementation of national biofuels programmes".

Protecting the climate? Studies that attribute significant potential to biofuels employ controversial carbon accounting methods. © Dominique Bruneton/PhotoAlto/laifProtecting the climate? Studies that attribute significant potential to biofuels employ controversial carbon accounting methods. © Dominique Bruneton/PhotoAlto/laif

Bioenergy programmes frequently ignore negative impacts

There is considerable need for improvement worldwide, says co-editor and IASS researcher Ariane Götz: "The state and private sector governance mechanisms in the countries examined here are not adequate to the task of ensuring effective nature and biodiversity conservation, preventing land conflicts, and improving the living conditions of populations on the ground. This applies not only to the main producers of biofuels: the countries where biofuels are consumed should also strive to implement strict certification schemes and reduce their overall demand." In many cases a holistic approach is lacking, as Götz makes clear in an article co-authored with Laura German (University of Georgia), Carol Hunsberger (Western University), and Oscar Schmidt (IASS). Many programmes instead focus on specific aspects such as energy security or economic growth. Negative impacts, for example for biodiversity and social structures in rural areas, are often not addressed.

Potential reductions in CO2 emissions frequently miscalculated in studies

That bioenergy plays such a prominent role in the sustainability strategies of many countries is due, among other things, to the great potential attributed to them in scientific studies. In their analysis of these studies, Timothy D. Searchinger (Princeton University), Tim Beringer (Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change) and Asa Strong (World Resources Institute) conclude that while they include potential greenhouse gas savings in their calculations, they do not account for the costs of land use for biofuels.

For example, current CO2 savings calculations ignore the fact that changes in land use for the production of bioenergy always results in the release of CO2 stored in soils and plants. The soil's function as a carbon sink is lost in the process. The calculations also ignored emissions from biomass burning. The loss of soils that would otherwise be used for the cultivation of foodstuffs must also be taken into account as an additional cost factor.

According to the authors, this 'accounting error' highlights the need to look at alternatives:  "Photovoltaics could produce at least a hundred times more usable energy per hectare on 73 per cent of the world's surface," they write. Using more land for solar power generation rather than the cultivation of energy crops would represent a significant contribution to the fight against climate change.

Policymakers should set their sights on lowering energy consumption

Summarizing their findings, the researchers recommend that policymakers should end efforts to promote the production of bioenergy from energy crops. In light of the poor performance of bioenergy, the authors advise policymakers to forge new paths in the expansion of renewable energies, while simultaneously stepping back and seeking to reduce overall energy demand. In those cases where new bioenergy programmes are to be implemented, an "adaptive and collaborative approach" is recommended, whereby actors with diverse interests interact with planners in a responsive process of continuous adaptation as new insights emerge.

Götz, A., German, L., Weigelt, J. (2017 online): Scaling up biofuels? A critical look at expectations, performance and governance. - Energy Policy.
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