Under the pressure of soaring oil prices and growing environmental
constraints, momentum is gathering for a major international
switch from fossil fuels to renewable bioenergy, according to
“The gradual move away from oil has begun. Over the next
15 to 20 years we may see biofuels providing a full 25 percent
of the world’s energy needs,” Alexander Müller,
the new Assistant Director-General for the Sustainable Development
Department of FAO said here.
Factors pushing for such a momentous change in the world energy
market include environmental constraints – increased global
warming and the Kyoto Protocol’s curbs on emissions of
carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses – and a growing
perception by governments of the risks of dependence on oil.
“Oil at more than 70 dollars a barrel makes bioenergy
potentially more competitive,” Müller said. “Also,
in the last decade global environmental concerns and energy consumption
patterns have built up pressure to introduce more renewable energy
into national energy plans and to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.”
His view is shared by a growing number of investors, including
Bill Gates, who recently decided to finance a US ethanol company
to the tune of US$84 million. Other new entries in the field
are a French company hitherto better known for making foie gras,
and Hungary, which plans to turn one million hectares of farmland
over to biofuel crops in the next few years.
FAO’s interest in bioenergy stems from the positive impact
that energy crops are expected to have on rural economies and
from the opportunity offered countries to diversify their energy
sources. “At the very least it could mean a new lease of
life for commodities like sugar whose international prices have
plummeted,” noted Gustavo Best, FAO’s Senior Energy
What the rest of the world could do tomorrow, Brazil, the world’s
biggest producer of bioethanol, is already doing today. A million
Brazilian cars run on fuel made from sugar cane, and most new
cars hitting the road there are powered by “flex fuel” engines.
Introduced three years ago they use either gasoline or bioethanol,
or any mix of the two.
According to senior motor industry executives, the flex engines
are spreading faster than any previous innovation in the automobile
sector. The reason is simple enough. In Brazil, which started
producing biofuel 30 years ago, a barrel of bioethanol is currently
half the price of a barrel of oil.
Some 1.5 million farmers are involved in growing sugar cane
for fuel in Brazil. But “sun fuel” can be made from
a variety of crops including soya, oil-palm, sugar beet, and
Europe lags well behind Brazil in bioethanol production and
consumption, and European prices are roughly twice Brazilian
ones. But the EU has set itself the target of increasing the
share of biofuels in transport to eight percent by 2015.
However, if oil prices stay high, things could move even faster.
According to studies by the European Union, biofuels grown on
available cropland could substitute 13 percent of petroleum-based
fuels in the short term.
Diesel can be made from virtually any oil seed. “The world’s
first diesel engine actually ran on peanut oil,” noted
Europe is already the world’s largest producer of biodiesel
(now made from rapeseed, soya or sunflower seeds), and the sector
is growing fast. Various countries such as Germany, Ukraine and
others, and many private and public companies are considering
a big move into biodiesel from these crops and other sources.
“The beauty of bioenergy is that production can be tailored
to local environments and energy needs,” Best said. “Where
there’s land, where there’s farmers, where there’s
interest, bioenergy may be the best option. And if we add some
sound analysis and good business models, we will get that option
Environmental and geopolitical effects
Clearly, a major move away from fossil fuels is destined to
have resounding geopolitical repercussions with hopefully a broader
international base of energy production and sources. But FAO’s
focus on the issue lies more with the likely impact on small
farmers and the implications for food security and rural development.
“Farmers, particularly in tropical areas, are seeing new
opportunities for increasing production and raising their incomes,” Best
“But we also need to be careful. We need to plan,” he
warned. “Competition for land between food and energy production
needs to be converted to positive common benefits.”
One hazard, for instance, is that large-scale promotion of bioenergy
relying on intensive cash-crop monocultures could see the sector
dominated by a few agri-energy giants – without any significant
gains for small farmers. But to date no comprehensive attempt
has been made to address the complex technical, policy and institutional
In order to fill this gap FAO has set up an International Bioenergy
Platform (IBEP), to be officially presented at the United Nations
in New York on May 9. The IBEP will provide expertise and advice
for governments and private operators to formulate bioenergy
policies and strategies. It will also help them develop the tools
to quantify bioenergy resources and implications for sustainable
development on a country-by-country basis.
It will further assist in the formulation of national bioenergy
programmes, drawing on FAO’s experience in promoting national,
regional and global bioenergy development.
“The aim is to help us grow both enough fuel and enough
food,” Müller said, “and make sure that everyone
benefits in the process.”
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