UN Report Urges Caution on Biofuels, Naked Capitalism, May 10: In an underreported story (no mention in the Financial Times or the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal reference was in its energy blog, far from prime time), the United Nations said in essence that biofuels could create as many problems, via environmental damage and higher food prices, as they solve. …
U.N. raises doubts on biofuels, Nicole Winfield, Associated Press, May 8: … In an agency-wide assessment, the U.N. raised alarms about the potential negative impact of biofuels, just days after a climate conference in Bangkok said the world had both the money and technology to prevent global warming blamed in part on greenhouse gas emissions.UN-Energy: Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers [PDF], April 2007
Biofuels, which are made from corn, palm oil, sugar cane and other agricultural products, have been seen by many as a cleaner and cheaper way to meet the world's soaring energy needs than with greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels. …
The report said bioenergy represents an "extraordinary opportunity" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it warned that "rapid growth in liquid biofuel production will make substantial demands on the world's land and water resources at a time when demand for both food and forest products is also rising rapidly."
Changes in the carbon content of soils and carbon stocks in forests and peat lands might offset some or all of the benefits of the greenhouse gas reductions, it said.
"Use of large-scale monocropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion and nutrient leaching," it said, adding that investments in bioenergy must be managed carefully, at national, regional and local levels to avoid new environmental and social problems "some of which could have irreversible consequences."
It noted that soaring palm oil demand has already led to the clearing of tropical forests in southeast Asia.
In addition, the diversion of food crops for fuel will increase food prices, putting a strain on the poor, as evidenced by the recent steep rise in maize and sugar prices, the report said.
"Liquid biofuel production could threaten the availability of adequate food supplies by diverting land and other productive resources away from food crops," it said, adding that many biofuel crops require the best land, lots of water and environment-damaging chemical fertilizers.
While bioenergy crops can create jobs in impoverished rural areas where the bulk of the world's poor and hungry live, creating biofuels favors large-scale production, meaning small-scale farmers could be pushed off their land by industrial agriculture.
It suggested that farm co-ops, as well as government subsidies, could help small-scale farmers compete.
Such concerns have been raised by Greenpeace International and other environmental groups worried that the biofuel fad is being driven by big agricultural interests looking for new markets.
"More and more, people are realizing that there are serious environmental and serious food security issues involved in biofuels," Greenpeace biofuels expert Jan van Aken said. "There is more to the environment than climate change. Climate change is the most pressing issue, but you cannot fight climate change by large deforestation in Indonesia." …