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A UN review of the contentious issue of biofuels has concluded that there is no straight answer to whether their overall impact will be good or bad.

But it is "crucial" that farmers are not encouraged to use productive cropland to grow biofuel crops, it says.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) launched an extensive literature review, combined with interviews with independent experts, in Nairobi last week (16 October). Its aim was to unravel the complex effects that biofuel production could have on carbon emissions and food production across the world.

Biofuels, produced mostly from plant matter ranging from corn to waste paper, have been touted by some as the solution to reducing carbon emissions. But other studies have suggested that their production will increase net carbon emissions, for example because of the deforestation required to clear land for their production, as well as competing with land for food production.

The report, the first produced by UNEP's International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, concludes that nations' approaches to biofuels need to be more sophisticated. They should be placed within a broader framework assessing their effects on areas such as agriculture, climate and the environment, if they are to benefit society.

"Wider and interrelated factors need to be considered when deciding on the relative merits of pursuing one biofuel over another," said Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director, in a foreword to the report, 'Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Assessing Biofuels'. "Simplistic approaches are unlikely to deliver a sustainable biofuels industry nor one that can contribute to the climate change challenge."

For example, while sugarcane-based ethanol can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by between 70 and over 100 per cent, the production of biodiesel from palm oil can actually increase emissions — by as much as 2,000 per cent, says the report. To avoid such disasters, it is important to use degraded, marginal and abandoned land for biofuel production – not productive cropland.

Additionally, increasing the production of biofuels could drive down biological diversity.

"Modelling the future diversity balance for different crops on different land types has shown that greenhouse gas reductions from biofuel production would often not be enough to compensate for the biodiversity losses from increased land-use conversion, not even with a time frame of several decades," the report says.

The key challenge for developing countries, says the report, is to strike a balance between the benefits of biofuels — such as increased energy supply — and negative environmental impacts.

"Biofuels are neither a panacea nor a pariah but like all technologies they represent both opportunities and challenges. One cannot talk of biofuels in generic terms and each country must ask itself specific questions," said Steiner.

"The report makes it clear that biofuels have a future role, but also underlines that there may be other options for combating climate change, improving rural livelihoods and achieving sustainable development that may or may not involve turning more and more crops and crop wastes into liquid fuels."

The report also points out that the rate of increase in food crop yields has slowed because of climate change in the past decades, particularly in semi-arid areas. Another depressive influence on crop availability is the conversion of cropland to biofuel production, particularly in Brazil and Indonesia.

However, crop yields could still shoot up in Sub-Saharan Africa where some farmers are successfully using improved agricultural technologies.

"Increasing agricultural yields will be required for both food and non-food production. Key is mobilising potential in regions where productivity increases have lagged, such as Sub-Saharan Africa," says the report.

Link to full report