Knowledge for Development

Feature articles

Retrospective: bottlenecks to Jatropha curcas bioenergy value-chain development in Africa – a Kenyan case

Jatropha curcas (Jatropha), a shrubby tree native to Central America, thrives in many parts of the tropics and sub-tropics in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Asia. Though an essentially undomesticated shrub, Jatropha suddenly emerged as a promising biodiesel feedstock during the period 2003-2009, when rising petrol prices fuelled global interests in bioenergy crops. Jatropha was claimed to produce high-quality oil, and had a wide adaptability to diverse climatic zones and soil types, minimum input requirements, short gestation period, easy multiplication, drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance and an ability to grow under marginal conditions without competition for resources for food production. It was considered a ‘silver bullet’ to solve energy insecurity in low-income countries and to support economic development. Similarly, investors from developed nations were eager to grow it in large commercial plantations in SSA and elsewhere for export. 


Biofuels: Are They Still Relevant?

With the race to find new gas deposits and develop production of other carbon-based fuels, such as shale oil in the USA, Argentina, Russia and Algeria, the development of the tar sands in Canada and the return to coal in some countries, biofuels might appear irrelevant. But this ignores the high cost, both financially and in terms of water use, impact on local habitats and the longer-term consequences for climate change that result from exploiting both the old and these new sources of oil and gas (Crooks, 2013; Lattanzio, 2013). Such exploitation undercuts efforts towards an energy transition in which clean transport technologies, such as biofuels, could be important. Some options that biofuels are already providing in developing countries are briefly examined and factors that contributed to their positive impact on inclusive development are discussed. 


Sugarcane bioethanol: Environmental implications

An article in Global Change Biology Bioenergy assessed the net greenhouse gas savings of bioethanol from sugarcane as compared to the use of fossil fuels. Researchers have long promoted biofuels produced from crop biomass as an environmentally sustainable source of renewable energy but rarely questioned whether the potential climate benefit of sugarcane ethanol is diminished when emissions from land use management are considered. Scientists examined the sugarcane ethanol production systems to identify sources of greenhouse gas emissions. They found that land use change, fertilization, residue burning, and tillage had the largest impact on greenhouse gas emissions. In order to maximize greenhouse gas savings, Dr. Cardoso Lisboa and coauthors suggest changes at all stages of the sugarcane production. For example, simultaneous provision of irrigation water and fertilizer would allow the reduction of fertilizer rates in sugarcane production systems. Furthermore, the conversion from pre-harvest burning to no- or minimum-tillage systems with mechanized harvest may better maintain or even increase soil C and N stocks.(Source: Alphagalileo, 2 Mar. 2011)


Towards sustainable production and use of resources: Assessing biofuels

Biofuels have attracted growing attention of policy, industry and research. The number of scientific publications devoted to biofuels is growing exponentially, and the number of reviews is increasing rapidly. For decision makers it has become a hard job to find robust reference material and solid guidance. Uncertainty on the overall assessment has been growing with the findings of the possible benefits and risks of biofuels. The International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management is taking up the challenge and, as its first report, provides another review on the widely debated field. It does so in the conviction that substantial progress requires an advanced approach which goes beyond the production and use of biofuels, and considers all competing applications of biomass, including food, fibres and fuels. A widened systems perspective is adopted with a particular focus on the potential impacts of land use change depending on the types of biofuels used and growth of demand.This report is the result of a thorough review process, based on research of recent publications (mainly until the end of 2008, but considering also eminent articles published before June 2009), and the involvement of many experts worldwide. The report intends to provide policy relevant information on the assessment of the environmental and social costs and benefits of biofuels. It examines both the concerns of critical developments, and describes the options for a more sustainable use of biomass and measures to increase resource productivity. The focus is on first generation biofuels thus reflecting the state-of-the-art and data reliability. Nevertheless, the report puts technology and policy development into perspective. It marks uncertainties and addresses the needs for research and development, also for advanced biofuels. In doing so, it delivers no final word, but a concentration of current knowledge, aimed to support decision making and future scientific work towards a sustainable “bio-economy”.Authors: S. Bringeza et. al., UNEP, 2009


How much water is needed to grow bioenergy crops?

A Dutch study by the University of Twente has assessed the water requirements of 13 bioenergy crops across the world. The findings could help select the best crops and locations to produce bioenergy. The EU climate action and renewable energy package has set a target of increasing the share of renewable energy to 20 per cent of energy used by 2020. This includes a minimum 10 per cent share for transport, which could include biofuels. This study used the concept of a water footprint in order to compare the water needs of various crops. A water footprint is the total annual volume of fresh water used to produce goods and services at the place of production and in this case is measured in m3 of water per Gigajoule of energy produced (m3/GJ). In this study it consists of two components: rainwater used during crop growth and surface and groundwater for irrigation. 12 crops were investigated that contribute most to global crop cultivation, currently making up 80 per cent of total agricultural production. It also investigated the plant jatropha, used to make biodiesel in India, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Brazil and Guatemala. Water footprints were calculated for the production of various types of bioenergy, including heat and electricity, biodiesel and bioethanol. Since climate and production vary according to location, the footprints were calculated by country.View PDF.


ACP’s response to fossil fuel dependence (ACP Policy brief)

ACP countries with their biomass resource potential are well positioned to effectively use biofuels for partially meeting their energy needs. The continued increase in the cost of fossil fuels - a finite resource, coupled with the cut in world market prices for sugar and other traditional export commodities have forced many ACP countries to seek innovative ways of meeting energy demands and diversifying agricultural production. This policy brief outlines various opportunities for using local biomass resources to reduce dependence of ACP countries on fossil fuels and to improve the competitiveness of traditional and non-traditional agricultural-based industries.


Biofuels -- New Dossier

The increased international focus on expanding the production of biofuels has given countries the impetus to increase investments primarily to reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels and to mitigate climate change. The ACP countries have traditionally used biofuels but the efficiency and sustainability of their production systems are questionable. The decline in preferential markets for sugar and the need to diversify the industry to minimize the social displacement makes the production of sugar ethanol and other biofuels from a range of crops including cassava seem attractive. However, balancing food production, achieving food, nutrition and environmental sustainability, and producing biofuels at competitive prices for national and international markets will remain an elusive dream if the scientific and political community do not join forces in consultation with civil society. In this dossier, two EU and ACP scientists, Maureen Wilson and Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters argue the pros and cons for the future of biofuels in ACP countries and provide insights into the options and strategies for making inroads in the biofuels market. The links to related websites and selected documents provide additional background material for the readers to examine the related issues and learn from international experiences to make informed decisions for crafting the future science and policy interventions that can benefit society in the global biofuel market. Explore this new dossier>>>


How sustainable are biofuels? Between common curiosity and confronting interests

With the exception of Nigeria and Cameroon and Trinidad & Tobago, all ACP countries are dependent on imported petroleum fuels for energy purposes. The world market prices of fossil fuels are unpredictable and likely to continue to increase in the foreseeable future. Can biofuels provide a long-term alternative by using locally produced renewable alternatives at a relatively constant cost? What are the gains at micro and macro levels, and what are the constraints and negative effects that we can expect from large-scale biofuel production? Can biofuels be produced on a sustainable basis and what would be required to achieve that goal?


Biofuels – S&T Strategic Options for ACP Countries

Production of biofuels offers a lifeline to all ACP sugar producing countries affected by the European Union (EU) sugar reforms which came into effect in July 2006. With the pending implementation of the new sugar regime, industries started restructuring in an attempt to survive and prevent closure. The common theme among all the restructuring plans is energy production. This is currently viewed as attractive not only because of the high prices for fossil fuels but because of the economic and environmental benefits. In the Caribbean region, Jamaica announced plans to start production of ethanol for the transportation sector. Barbados indicated that it would increase the acreage under production and plant more of the fuel cane varieties to utilize the bagasse in electricity generation and also manufacture 24 million litres of fuel ethanol. Belize and Guyana are also planning to introduce cogeneration and St Kitts which had closed its industry is considering reopening in partnership with foreign companies to process its sugarcane output into bioethanol (). In the African region, the Mauritius sugar industry increased its utilization of cane biomass for the generation of electricity and hence its share in the supply of electricity to the national grid (Autry 2004, Avram 2004). Zambia and Malawi have started biodiesel production from the oil plant Jatropha.