Power or food, land, or labour

Researchers take a keen look at bioenergy production from a developing country perspective

In developing countries, access to energy and poverty reduction is intrinsically linked. Modern bioenergy could be one of the options to address both. Yet the production of bioenergy remains controversial as it has to compete with food crops for land or labour. In addition, biofuels may impact on an area’s water supply and biodiversity.

To help practitioners and decision makers in developing countries to balance the positive and negative impacts of bioenergy production, an international consortium of researchers from six different countries developed a set of methodologies to assess the sustainability of bioenergy projects literally "from the bottom up". The resulting handbook, 'Assessing the Sustainability of Bioenergy Projects in Developing Countries: A Framework for Policy Evaluation', is a major attempt to inform the national and international debate on bioenergy production.

According to CSIR senior researcher and co-editor Graham von Maltitz, the project was born out of the need to develop approaches sensitive to different contexts and regions, especially those in developing countries
"Many of the existing methods are robust and effective, but they have a predominantly western, market-orientated perspective," said von Maltitz.

Funded by the European Union Aid Cooperation Office, the RE-Impact consortium used four case studies from South Africa, Uganda, India and China to develop technologically and socially sound methods to assess the hydrological, biodiversity, carbon and social impacts from bioenergy feedstock production. The project had a bottom-up approach to help strengthen the national scientific-based discussion in the case study countries and respective initiatives to develop impact assessment frameworks for bioenergy feedstock production; and provided linkages between national and international initiatives to foster widely-accepted regulatory frameworks.


Impacts and trade-offs

The researchers found sharp contrasts between the impacts at community, national or global level with potential tradeoffs appearing at all scales. For example, a rural community has minimal capacity to influence carbon sequestration at a global scale. Yet this very community will be impacted by climate change. Or, while biodiversity impacts are monitored at a national scale, the impact of biodiversity losses on community level can range from negligible to livelihood-threatening.
"Ideally", the researchers conclude, "sustainable bioenergy production in developing countries should be driven through sound national policy and legislation, and not by an unregulated rush to attend expected market demands or ill-conceived policy objectives."

They propose as a starting point a 'planning for sustainability' approach, based on consultation with stakeholders and the development of a long term vision that is agreeable to all. 'Sustainability assessment' is a relatively new tool that differs from the traditional Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in that it is inherently about achieving sustainability as a desired outcome, rather than merely identifying and mitigating environmental impacts.

"It is about understanding the social-ecological system into which the proposed biofuel activity will be placed," the researchers argue. However, the methods of sustainability assessment are still being developed and hence the approach lacks an institutional framework to legislate and fund its implementation.

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