Skip to main content

Rapid Assessment of Biofuel Potential and Impact on Ecosystem Services

Final Report Summary - ABIOPES (Rapid Assessment of Biofuel Potential and Impact on Ecosystem Services)

The aim of the EC-funded project ABioPES was to explore how the ecosystem services approach can be used to frame, assess and convey the direct and indirect impact of liquid biofuels. The focus was on developing regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa as these are the areas more likely to reap the benefit (or face the negative consequences) of biofuel expansion.

The ecosystem services approach was chosen as the analytical framework as it allows linking the benefits obtained from ecosystems (ecosystem services) with the multiple constituents of human wellbeing. Central to the proposed project was the development and application of a methodology that could operationalize the ecosystem services approach for assessing the impact of biofuel expansion in developing countries. Preliminary work during ABioPES demonstrated that the ecosystem services approach has both benefits and pitfalls for synthesizing existing biofuel knowledge and developing biofuel impact assessment tools (see Table).

An extended synthesis of the available literature identified that jatropha, oil palm and sugarcane landscapes can indeed provide, divert, displace and degrade a number of provisioning, regulating and cultural ecosystem services. Ecosystem services commonly affected by biofuel/feedstock expansion include fuel feedstock (provisioning), food/fibre/fodder (provisioning), water (provisioning), climate regulation (regulating), air quality regulation (regulating) and soil erosion regulation (regulating). Furthermore, biofuel expansion can also affect biodiversity (which is the basis of numerous ecosystem services) directly due to habitat loss, invasiveness, pollution, climate change and overexploitation. There are also instances that biofuel landscapes (e.g. jatropha) benefit from supporting ecosystem services such as pollination. The magnitude of changes in the flows of these ecosystem services depend on numerous factors, including: (a) the feedstock; (b) the mode of production/use; (c) the agricultural practices adopted during feedstock production; (d) the location of biofuel production and use (i.e. environmental and socioeconomic context); (e) the previous land use; (f) the stage of the biofuel’s life-cycle; (g) the policies in place during biofuel production, use and trade.

Biofuel-driven changes in the flow of such ecosystem services can affect human wellbeing in multiple ways. The constituents of human wellbeing most likely to be affected include income, food/fuel security, access to land and public health. In most reviewed cases biofuel expansion was associated with significant human wellbeing trade-offs.

In order to identify and assess these trade-offs in real life situations we conducted a field survey of two operational jatropha projects in southern Africa in March 2013 (jointly with Dr. Graham von Maltitz, CSIR, South Africa). In particular we sought to identify the emerging trade-offs in two very different modes of production; a large jatropha plantation (Niqel, Mozambique) and a smallholder project (BERL, Malawi). We found that on both occasions the main trade-offs involved provisioning services, and particularly displacement of food crops by fuel feedstock. The magnitude of this displacement due to land use change was relatively limited as farmers in Malawi were incentivized to grow jatropha in hedgerows surrounding their family farms, while in Mozambique given the low population density and abundant land the displaced family farmers could clear woodland to relocate their family farms. However in the case of Mozambique there was also a potentially significant displacement of access to forest products and a degradation of climate regulation services considering that the plantation was established on woodland. However at the point of fieldwork actual jatropha oil production had not commenced so it was impossible to ascertain the magnitude of total greenhouse gas emissions through a life cycle assessment.

The main human wellbeing benefits accrued through the provision of income to jatropha growers (Malawi) and plantation workers (Mozambique). However, these monetary benefits are not captured evenly between community members. We identified that family farmers in Malawi with larger plots of land (and usually better off) were the most likely to adopt jatropha as a cash crop. On the other hand those most likely to be engaged as waged labor in plantation (in Mozambique) tended to come from less well-off and well-endowed households. Interestingly both jatropha farmers and plantation workers indicated through interviews and focus groups a potentially positive effects on food security as the obtained income allowed them to buy food in times of need despite the displacements of labour (for plantation workers and smallholders) and land (for smallholders) from the subsistence agriculture prevalent in both areas, see video at http://vimeo.com/67382494

When designing policies that aim to reduce the pressure of biofuel expansion on ecosystem services it is important to have a good understanding of these trade-offs as well as the actors most likely to benefiting or face the negative consequences. However it is also important to understand the perceptions of the different stakeholders involved in biofuel chains as their competing interests might become a barrier to effective policy-making.

In order to demonstrate the very diverse perceptions held by stakeholders regarding the impact of biofuels on ecosystem services, biodiversity and human wellbeing we re-analysed (jointly with Dr. Raquel Moreno-Penaranda, UNU-IAS, Japan) 127 surveys collected during the 8th Roundtable Meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSPO-RT8, November 2010). Our results show, that far from being homogeneous, perceptions about impacts on ecosystems services and human wellbeing (and the potential to mitigate them) are very divergent among the different actors that comprise this multi-stakeholder alliance. Usually stakeholders directly involved in the value chain (see left figure) tend to be more optimistic regarding the impact of oil palm expansion when compared to stakeholders not involved directly in the chain (see right figure). Furthermore, perceptions about two key impacts, GHG emissions and biodiversity loss, are very polarized between the different stakeholder groups. Reconciling these different perceptions, and aligning them with those of other groups outside the sector (e.g. local communities), can be a first step for legitimizing the RSPO certification process and ameliorating the negative impacts of the palm oil sector.

While the trade-offs we identified in the literature review and empirical research are in most cases inevitable, in hindsight at least part of the negative impact could be mitigated through careful planning. Considering the above we identified ten priority policy areas that need to be targeted if the sustainability of biofuel production and use is to be enhanced in Sub-Sahara Africa including: (a) align biofuel policies with national realities and wider policy objectives; (b) develop viable markets for biofuels and their co-products; (c) base feedstock selection on proper agronomic knowledge and agro-ecological zoning; (d) foster innovation in the biofuel sector; (e) prevent speculative and predatory corporate behaviour; (f) include broader sustainability considerations in biofuel policies; (g) safeguard land rights of local communities and minimize potential for land grabbing; (h) minimize food-fuel competition; (i) phase out and gradually ban harmful environmental practices; (j) promote biofuel end-uses that have social and environmental co-benefits.

In order to reach the multiple stakeholders involved in biofuel chains apart from peer-reviewed academic publications (4 accepted, 4 submitted/in preparation), we developed a policy report and a video.
- The policy report summarizes in a non-expert language the main impacts of sugarcane- and jatropha-based biofuels on ecosystem services and human wellbeing in Sub-Sahara Africa. It was disseminated during the 11th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD-COP11, October 2012, Hyderabad) that brought together thousands of policy-makers from around the world and can be found online free of charge at ( http://unu.edu/publications/policy-briefs/biofuels-in-africa-impacts-on-ecosystem-services-biodiversity-and-human-well-being.html ).
- The video highlights key findings of the empirical research in Malawi and Mozambique. It has been disseminated through different actions (e.g. screening in conferences and policy events) and can be found free of charge at ( http://vimeo.com/67382494 ).

Finally, we have been sharing the results of this project with the biofuel companies we used as case studies (BERL, Niqel), the NGO Solidaridad southern Africa and the third-party certifications schemes Bonsucro and Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials.

Related documents