Towards sustainable production and use of resources: assessing biofuels

Oct 2009

Biofuels have received much attention from decision-makers in government and industry, and of the wider public world-wide. As the number of publications devoted to this renewable source of energy is expanding rapidly, it has become increasingly difficult for decision-makers to identify the key messages on which to build their decisions. The International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management (IPSRM) is responding to this challenge with its first assessment report Towards sustainable production and use of resources: Assessing Biofuels.
This report is the result of extensive literature examination and a thorough review process, involving a number of experts, to provide a robust assessment of key problems of production and use of biomass for energy purposes and options for more efficient and sustainable production and use of biomass.
The focus is on so-called first generation biofuels, due to availability of state-of-the art reviews, but also considers further lines of development.
Putting biofuels development into a broader perspective of resource efficiency, the report examines the interaction of biofuel production with a number of global trends, including population growth, changing nutrition patterns, yield improvements and climate change. The key findings of the report are as follows:
Bioenergy, so far largely in the form of traditional use of biomass, is part of the energy mix.
Long term sustainability of the bioenergy sector can only be achieved with sound policies and planning that take into consideration a range of global trends, including population growth, yield improvements, changing diet patterns and climate change. Biofuels may make a difference in terms of achieving the different policy objectives pursued. However, not all biofuels perform equally well in terms of their impact on climate, energy security, and on ecosystems. Environmental and social impacts need to be assessed throughout the entire life-cycle.
As future global biofuel demand is expected to increase, so is the demand on land. Land conversion for biofuel crops can lead to negative environmental impacts including implications such as reduced biodiversity and increased GHG emissions.
Water is another limiting factor, both in terms of quality and quantity.
There are avenues available to create more efficient and sustainable production of biomass, and thereby reduce environmental pressures.
Sustainable biofuel production can occur when strategies are implemented to increase resource productivity. Certain measures can reduce environmental pressures on natural resources and provide social benefits.

By: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

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