Agrofuels and Bioenergy

Throughout the past decade, many governments regarded the replacement of petroleum with renewable resources as a “green” and “silver bullet” solution for reducing our dependence on fossil fuel energy and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It was also hoped that renewable resources would open up new markets for agriculture. The IAASTD was one of the first reports to warn against this way of thinking. Today, almost all international institutions harbour serious doubts regarding agrofuel production, primarily due to its impact on food prices and the competition it creates for arable land and water resources. Even the positive climate effects of biofuels have become highly contested.

Public blending targets and subsidy measures for the production of fuel from maize, rapeseed and other crops have resulted in a significant boom in the cultivation of renewable resources, both in the EU and the US. For Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia, sugar cane and palm oil for agrofuel production have become important export goods."Sup­plying energy to urban areas and industrialized countries may offer short-term economic gains for developing coun­tries in the region, but with high costs for the environment and for the capacity of countries to produce food that is available, accessible and affordable to poor people." (East and South Asia and the Pacific Report, p. 164) Soybean oil is increasingly being used as a feedstock for biodiesel production. Africa’s unexploited agricultural land is often considered the “promised land” for the production of renewable fuels. Since the explosion of global food prices in 2008, in which the biofuels boom played a substantial role, worldwide disillusionment has set in. In 2011, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the FAO and other UN organisations made an appeal to the G20 countries, in particular the US and the EU, to remove all provisions and national policies that subsidise or mandate biofuel production and consumption. Instead, they recommended seeking alternatives to reduce carbon emissions and focus on energy efficiency, including for agriculture itself. However, due to diverging interests, the heads of state of the G20 countries failed to agree on a common line in the “food or fuel” debate.

The investment-intensive agro-energy boom has generated high profits for several large companies and further aided the concentration process among US and European farmers. The price increases for cereals, sugar and oilseeds in recent years, to which this new and almost insatiable demand for agro-energy has contributed, are of course felt by all farmers and consumers on the market. In view of a massive biofuel lobby, neither the EU nor the US has yet taken convincing steps to counteract the trend. However, bills are now on the table on both sides of the Atlantic with the aim of slightly reducing the once enormous targets for biofuels and agro-energy. In the US, where 40% of the maize harvest and 23% of soybean oil are converted into ethanol and biodiesel respectively, the heavy subsidies have been questioned due to austerity measures and because fracking is tapping new gas and oil reserves. The EU approved a 7% cap on first-generation crop-based biofuels that can be counted toward the EU's 2020 renewable transport energy target. >>more

Facts & Figures

The cultivation of plants for biofuel production is rapidly increasing. The global production of biodiesel for example increased from 7 billion litres in 2006 to an estimated 37.3 billion litres in 2017. Over the same period, ethanol production rose from 55.3 to 123.6 billion litres.

In 2017 the U.S. used 5.4 billion bushels of corn to produce ethanol fuel. The share of corn used for ethanol production rose from 5.9% in the year 2000 to 37.1% in 2017.

Any large-scale change in land use, for biomass for energy, or for sequestration in vegetation, will likely increase the competition for land, water, and other resources, and conflicts may arise with important sustainability objectives such as food security, soil and water conservation, and the protection of terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity.

If Europe’s subsidies were removed from first generation biofuels, the price of food stuffs such as vegetable oil would be 50% lower in Europe by 2020 than at present – and 15% lower elsewhere in the world – according to the EU’s Joint Research Centre.

"Biofuels have direct, fuel‐cycle GHG emissions that are typically 30–90% lower per kilometre travelled than those for gasoline or diesel fuels. However, since for some biofuels, indirect emissions - including from land use change - can lead to greater total emissions than when using petroleum products, policy support needs to be considered on a case by case basis."

The European land footprint of bioenergy consumption in 2010 was 45 million hectares. By 2030, if current trends continue, EU bioenergy consumption is expected to increase by 58%, occupying 70 million hectares of land - equivalent to the size of Sweden and Poland combined.

Agrofuel production is playing a key role in the purchasing and leasing of large agricultural areas in developing and emerging countries. Around 23% of land deals listed by the Land Matrix are geared towards the cultivation of plants used for the production of agrofuels.

The European Union’s biofuel policy is threatening food security and increasing land grabbing in Africa. 66% of the land that has been grabbed in Africa, some 18.8 million hectares, is intended for biofuel production. Among the largest investors are companies from Europe.

The contribution of biofuel demand to the increase in grain prices from 2000 to 2007 is estimated to be 30 percent. The strongest impact was on maize prices, for which biofuels are estimated to account for 39 percent of price increases.

232 kilograms of corn is needed to produce 50 litres of bioethanol. In Mexico or Zambia, a child could live on that amount of corn for a year.

Around 3 billion people still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels (i.e. wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal and dung) in open fires and leaky stoves. Most are poor, and live in low- and middle-income countries. Black carbon (sooty particles) and methane emitted by inefficient stove combustion are powerful climate change pollutants.

60% of the primary energy supply in sub-Saharan African comes from biomass, and close to 90% of the population uses biomass for cooking and heating.


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Videos: Biofuels & Bioenergy

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  • UNEP Bioenergy productionUNEP Bioenergy production
  • UNEP Biofuel Production MapUNEP Biofuel Production Map
  • UNEP Biofuel versus fossil fuelUNEP Biofuel versus fossil fuel
  • UNEP Oil Prices comparedUNEP Oil Prices compared
  • UNEP Biodiversity loss 2006-2050UNEP Biodiversity loss 2006-2050
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Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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