Categories: Energy Article 2

Catalysing Biofuel Sustainability – International and National Policy Interventions (Sub-Saharan Africa)

Alexandros Gasparatos,1 Lisa Lee,2 Graham P. von Maltitz,3 Manu V. Mathai,2 Jose A. Puppim de Oliveira,2 Francis X. Johnson,4 and Katherine J. Willis*,1
1 Biodiversity Institute, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
2 United Nations University, Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS), Yokohama, Japan
3 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa
4 Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Stockholm, Sweden

*Corresponding author:

EPL, Vol.43, Iss.4-5, pp.216-221, 2013



Biofuels are liquid and gaseous fuels produced from the chemical and biological processing of biomass. Depending on the raw material (feedstock) and the conversion technology used, biofuels can be divided into three categories: first generation (from sugar and starch crops, and animal/plant fats and oils), second generation (mainly from lignocellulosic matter) and third generation (from algae). First-generation liquid biofuels for transport, such as bioethanol and biodiesel, which are by far the most widely produced and hotly debated biofuels, are the focus of this paper. A rich literature produced in the past decade shows that different biofuel options can have significantly different environmental and socio-economic impacts. However, national biofuel policies usually seek to boost biofuel demand rather than enhance biofuel sustainability. This paper starts by identifying the main policy drivers behind biofuel production, and the peripheral role of biofuel sustainability in current policies. We focus particularly on the successes and future challenges of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in promoting sustainable biofuel production and use. Finally, using Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) as an example, we show how the concept of “ecosystem services” can be of use in the better understanding of biofuel-related trade-offs and can provide the basis for assessment tools that can quantify such trade-offs in a policy-relevant manner.

Policy Drivers of Biofuel Production and Use

Global biofuel production for transport purposes has increased more than five-fold in the past decade. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that, if appropriate steps were taken, by 2050 biofuels could constitute up to a quarter of transport fuel globally. Although considerable current efforts seek to promote greater production and use of second- and third-generation biofuels, first-generation biofuels will be the main driver of global biofuel expansion in the shortto-medium term, particularly in developing countries. In this connection it is notable that, while there are significant research efforts in the US and the EU towards the development of second- and third-generation biofuels, Brazil and China are the only emerging economies planning to produce second-generation biofuels in the short term.5 This has been largely due to the fact that first-generation biofuels can be developed from readily available (and mostly proven) feedstocks and well developed and costefficient conversion technologies, making their production in developing countries easy.

To understand the sustainability impacts of biofuels, it is important to note that biofuels have been pursued in different parts of the world for different reasons. While biofuels have been touted as a climate change mitigation strategy, in fact the EU is the only major biofuel producer/ user that has adopted biofuels in the first instance partly for this purpose. In most other countries, biofuels have been mainly pursued as a means of energy security and economic/rural development (Table 1). 

Sustainable Biofuel Expansion in Africa: Why Does it Matter?

Sub-Saharan Africa has been identified as a potentially important area into which to expand biofuel/feedstock production. In contrast to the other major biofuel-producing regions, SSA has an unusually stark combination of poverty, food insecurity and ecosystem degradation. It is imperative to consider these issues with respect to future biofuel expansion in the region. This paper discusses some key policy interventions at the international and the national level that can promote biofuel sustainability in SSA. Sugarcane and jatropha are the two biofuel feedstocks that have received the most attention in SSA. National governments and foreign investors have started implementing biofuel/feedstock production for both domestic blending and exports. Where available, commonly articulated narratives for biofuel policies in SSA centre on energy security, rural development and carbon finance. Sugarcane ethanol offers significant advantages as it adopts a proven commercial model. However, it requires much higher levels of up-front financing and cannot address the fact that there is greater demand for diesel over gasoline in SSA. On the other hand, jatropha has been seen as a biofuel option that can offer some direct benefits to small subsistence farmers. This is in contrast to sugarcane, which is essentially an industrial crop, benefiting from largescale production and economies of scale. Despite several high-profile collapses of jatropha projects in Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia, there still remains interest in jatropha in a number of SSA countries.

Currently, a number of countries such as Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique and Tanzania have been debating and/or updating their biofuel strategies alongside related policies in the energy and agricultural sectors. Some countries, such as Ethiopia, have relied heavily on ambitious State-sponsored investment/expansion plans, whereas others have encouraged private-sector investment. For the private sector, there is a tendency to move away from less proven crops (e.g., jatropha) towards more proven commercial energy crops, particularly sugarcane and secondarily palm oil. Sugarcane ethanol investments in Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Tanzania aim to take advantage of favourable agricultural conditions and new avenues of market access. In Eastern and Western Africa, there has been some interest in palm oil as a commercial energy crop, thus potentially expanding beyond its traditional roles – as food, and as an ingredient in soap and local pharmaceutical products. Jatropha and other crops nevertheless retain some interest due to the tremendous variation in physical and socio-economic conditions across the continent and more generally due to the site-specific nature of bioenergy feedstocks.

National Biofuel Policies: Securing Demand over Promoting Sustainability As transport has been the main end-use of biofuel by far, most biofuel policies have aimed to boost biofuel uptake by the transport sector. Key legislative instruments have been those that promote the mandatory blending of biofuels in transport fuel, also known as biofuel mandates. Such policies either set a specific biofuel production target, e.g., 136 billion litres of renewable fuel to be blended annually with transport fuel by 2022 in the US, or require biofuels to constitute a specified proportion of national transport fuel use, e.g., 10 percent of transport fuel by 2020 in the EU. Under favourable conditions, biofuel mandates can be taken up very rapidly. For example, in Brazil, the initial legal biodiesel blending requirement was two percent. This gradually increased to five percent in January 2010, with the final blending target of 11.097 percent being achieved three years earlier than the 2005 deadline prescribed in law. 

Biofuel mandates are often complemented with an array of policies that stimulate and protect national feedstock/ biofuel production. Such policies can include, among others, tax breaks to facilitate uptake by consumers, price guarantees/subsidies to stimulate domestic production, and import tariffs to protect national feedstock production from imports. .g., Angola (10 percent ethanol), Ethiopia (5 percent ethanol), Malawi (10 percent ethanol), Mozambique (10 percent ethanol increasing to 20 percent in 2021), Sudan (5 percent ethanol), Zambia (10 percent ethanol, 5 percent biodiesel), and Zimbabwe (5 percent ethanol increasing to 15 percent). Other SSA countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda have not put actual mandates in place, but have articulated specific biofuel production targets. Such mandates essentially ensure some minimum biofuel demand and are a means of reducing the financial risks to biofuel producers. Biofuel mandates are deemed necessary due to the monopoly position of fossil fuels and the dependence caused by the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure. However, biofuel mandates do not necessarily address the social and environmental impacts of biofuel production and use. Such impacts can be positive or negative depending on the local and national context. Even though in some countries, such as China, India and South Africa, laws and policies provide clear clauses to avoid biofuel pathways that directly affect food security, most national biofuel policies largely disregard the environmental and socio-economic impacts of biofuels.

Up to now, the main avenue for improving the sustainability of biofuel projects has been setting voluntary certification standards. Such standards are developed by multi-stakeholder alliances and target either biofuels (e.g., the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels and the Global Bioenergy Partnership), or specific feedstocks (e.g., Bonsucro for sugarcane) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). Usually, such standards encompass a wide range of economic, environmental and social criteria that have to be met if a biofuel or a feedstock is to be considered sustainable. Even though some legislative instruments, such as the EU Directive on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources (Directive 2009/28/EC), require the certification of biofuels used within the EU, this is not the case for all countries that produce or consume biofuels.

Understanding Biofuel Trade-offs: What Can the Ecosystem Services Framework Offer?

Assessment tools that can quantify biofuel-induced changes of ecosystem services flows at the landscape level have been shown to be ideal for assessing biofuel tradeoffs, as they (a) capture the main environmental and socioeconomic impacts associated with biofuel production/ use, (b) employ a problem-oriented approach, (c) have an interdisciplinary focus integrating findings from various academic disciplines, and (d) have broad acceptance amongst academics, practitioners and policy makers. The fact that such tools can link biofuel-mediated ecosystem change with human wellbeing renders their application particularly pertinent in developing-country contexts as it is well accepted that poor people in least developed countries rely significantly on ecosystem services for their livelihoods. Finally, ecosystem services tools resonate well with the focus of the CBD on ecosystem change and human wellbeing.

The authors of this article conducted, and released during CBD CoP-11, a comprehensive review of the literature about biofuel impacts in SSA. This study found that biofuel production and use can affect rural development, energy security, food security, social conflicts, public health, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion and biodiversity loss among others. Most of these impacts are context-specific, and depend on the feedstock, the mode of production and the local environmental and socio-economic context, among others. The study also found, however, that the impacts on human wellbeing of biofuel projects are largely related to the alteration of ecosystem services flows from biofuel landscapes. In particular, the conversion of agricultural land or natural ecosystems to biofuel landscapes can displace, divert and/or degrade a number of ecosystem services upon which local communities depend for their livelihoods. Based on this work, we identified a number of policy priority areas that must be targeted in order to enhance the economic viability and the sustainability of the biofuel sector in SSA. Some of these priority areas are discussed below.

EPL Energy Article 2

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