Researching bioenergy and its conflicts

1.4.2014 at 11:45

Javier Arevalo

No-one has explained to us the benefits of the [bioenergy] project. But they do not allow us to go there with our animals, so the grazing lands have been terribly reduced”, tells Hassan, a member of Kenya’s Wardei pastoralists.

With a lot of attention paid in recent decades to bioenergy, it still remains a contested issue. Criticism is heard not just in Europe (and considering the greater use of wood energy, in particular in Europe’s North) but beyond, with concerns ranging from potential biodiversity and forest cover loss to landgrabbing (see the Global Forest Coalition’s report “Wood-based bioenergy: the green lie”). Even the very notion that biofuels emit less carbon than fossil fuels is disputed, especially if bioenergy crops are grown on previous forest land, given the loss of carbon stocks.

Some of the discussion over bioenergy has lately shifted to developing countries. There, additional drivers to the expansion of bioenergy are the (perceived) availability of large extensions of land coupled with the need for foreign investments, the prospects for poverty reduction, and the increased demand stimulated by biofuel support schemes such as those from EU or US. These drivers explain why bioenergy-related conflicts have increasingly been reported in sub-Saharan Africa, following large-scale agro-fuel investments. And some landgrab claims do affect Nordic countries (see the forestry plantations in Mozambique involving Swedish and Norwegian organisations as reflected in Oakland Institute’s Mozambique Country Report).

A case for global governance?

Surely something is being done to regulate these developments (with for example van Dam and colleagues reporting as many as 70 sustainable bioenergy initiatives), both in terms of governance and regulation. Governance can be understood in the broad sense of steering social systems by different actors (both state and non-state), as opposed to regulation which encompasses the mechanisms of governmental institutions. Some of the global governance actors and their initiatives include: FAO’s Bioenergy and Food Security Criteria and Indicators, the Principles and Criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, the Standard for Sustainable Production of Agricultural Biomass of the Council on Sustainable Biomass Production, the Bioenergy Sustainability Indicators of the Global Bioenergy Partnership, and the ISO’s upcoming Sustainability Criteria for Bioenergy. Issues such as the prevention of indirect effects on food prices have been prominent in such voluntary initiatives.

On the regulatory front, EU and US have developed the most globally influential regulations to date, given the size of their biofuel markets. US has legislated on biofuels through the Renewable Fuel Standard programmes, with the EU doing so through the Fuel Quality Directive and the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) –the latter one demanding a 10% of renewable energy in transport by 2020. The sustainability criteria for biofuels currently incorporated into RED include the requirement of a greenhouse gas emission saving of at least 35%, and excludes its production in areas with high biodiversity or high carbon stock. Despite its sustainability safeguards, EU’s RED has received great criticism for (allegedly) externalising their environmental impacts, with EU currently re-examining its support to first generation biofuels.

Directions for bioenergy governance research

So what does research tell us, and more importantly how can research help in this? Well, some studies do show that biofuel developments are responsible for evictions of local communities as well as drivers of deforestation in areas of Latin America, South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa: for example in Mato Grosso (Brazil), deforestation attributed to soybean for biodiesel is as high as 6% annually (see the study by Gao and colleagues). Yet despite the importance of the subject, findings have mostly originated from relatively small studies and are difficult to extrapolate, while important questions remain: How do the different bioenergy sustainability initiatives affect the projects? Are the both direct and indirect impacts appropriately measured? How can appropriate consultation or participation of local communities be ensured? Under what conditions are the support systems for large-scale plantations for first generation biofuels justifiable?

While bioenergy governance deserves a higher place in the research agenda, the study of bioenergy-related conflicts offers particular potential. An initial review of the literature seems to indicate that bioenergy conflicts fall under 5 broad categories:

  1. Bioenergy plantation conflicts, related to the establishment and/or management of bioenergy plantations;
  2. Biomass extraction conflicts, regarding the (legal) extraction of biomass, such as logging residues or stumps;
  3. Conflicts about illegal biomass extraction, such as illegal charcoal burning in many Sub-Saharan countries;
  4. Bioenergy transformation conflicts, on issues such as the transportation or transformation of the feedstock;
  5. Bioenergy governance conflicts, centred on aspects such as the impact of policies, trade interests, markets, or other governance processes (sustainability criteria, certification, boycotts etc)

A proposed way forward, along the paths already walked by the Land Matrix database and the Environmental Justice Atlas database projects, could be to develop collaborative efforts for the identification (and later analysis) of bioenergy-related conflicts. A database of bioenergy conflicts (for example, from where conflicts could be retrieved according to topics or regions) would be valuable not just for researchers but for informing policy makers in the forestry and energy sectors. Ultimately, improved policies should (hopefully) minimise negative impacts of national but also international bioenergy projects, such as the loss of livelihoods for Hassan and his fellow pastoralists.

(*This blog entry appears also at the NBForest blog)




Javier Arevalo

Javier Arevalo


blog on bioenergy

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