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5. Environmental impacts
of biofuels

Although biofuel production remains small Depending on the methods used to produce
in the context of total energy demand, it the feedstock and process the fuel, some
is significant in relation to current levels crops can even generate more greenhouse
of agricultural production. The potential gases than do fossil fuels. For example,
environmental and social implications of its nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with a global-
continued growth must be recognized. For warming potential around 300 times greater
example, reduced greenhouse gas emissions than that of carbon dioxide, is released from
are among the explicit goals of some policy nitrogen fertilizers. Moreover, greenhouse
measures to support biofuel production. gases are emitted at other stages in the
Unintended negative impacts on land, water production of bioenergy crops and biofuels:
and biodiversity count among the side-effects in producing the fertilizers, pesticides and fuel
of agricultural production in general, but used in farming, during chemical processing,
they are of particular concern with respect to transport and distribution, up to final use.
biofuels. The extent of such impacts depends Greenhouse gases can also be emitted by
on how biofuel feedstocks are produced direct or indirect land-use changes triggered
and processed, the scale of production and, by increased biofuel production, for example
in particular, how they influence land-use when carbon stored in forests or grasslands is
change, intensification and international released from the soil during land conversion
trade. This chapter reviews the environmental to crop production. For example, while
implications of biofuels; the social implications maize produced for ethanol can generate
will be considered in the following chapter. greenhouse gas savings of about 1.8 tonnes
of carbon dioxide per hectare per year, and
switchgrass – a possible second-generation
Will biofuels help mitigate climate crop – can generate savings of 8.6 tonnes
change?10 per hectare per year, the conversion of
grassland to produce those crops can release
Until recently, many policy-makers assumed 300 tonnes per hectare, and conversion of
that the replacement of fossil fuels with forest land can release 600–1 000 tonnes
fuels generated from biomass would have per hectare (Fargione et al., 2008; The Royal
significant and positive climate-change Society, 2008; Searchinger, 2008).
effects by generating lower levels of the Life-cycle analysis is the analytical tool
greenhouse gases that contribute to global used to calculate greenhouse gas balances.
warming. Bioenergy crops can reduce or The greenhouse gas balance is the result
offset greenhouse gas emissions by directly of a comparison between all emissions of
removing carbon dioxide from the air as greenhouse gases throughout the production
they grow and storing it in crop biomass and phases and use of a biofuel and all the
soil. In addition to biofuels, many of these greenhouse gases emitted in producing and
crops generate co-products such as protein using the equivalent energy amount of the
for animal feed, thus saving on energy that respective fossil fuel. This well-established,
would have been used to make feed by other but complex, method systematically
means. analyses each component of the value
Despite these potential benefits, however, chain to estimate greenhouse gas emissions
scientific studies have revealed that different (Figure 22).
biofuels vary widely in their greenhouse The starting point in estimating the
gas balances when compared with petrol. greenhouse gas balance is a well-defined
set of boundaries for a specific biofuel
The analysis in this section draws partly on FAO (2008d). system, which is compared with a suitable

“conventional” reference system – in most A limited number of studies have considered

cases petrol. Several biofuel feedstocks also vegetable oil; biodiesel from palm oil, cassava
generate co-products, such as press cake and jatropha; and biomethane from biogas.
or livestock feed. These are considered Given the wide range of biofuels, feedstocks
“avoided” greenhouse gas emissions and and production and conversion technologies,
are assessed by comparing them with similar we would expect a similarly wide range of
stand-alone products or by allocation (e.g. by outcomes in terms of emission reductions –
energy content or market price). Greenhouse which is indeed the case. Most studies have
gas balances differ widely among crops found that producing first-generation
and locations, depending on feedstock biofuels from current feedstocks results
production methods, conversion technologies in emission reductions in the range of 20–
and use. Inputs such as nitrogen fertilizer 60 percent relative to fossil fuels, provided the
and the type of electricity generation (e.g. most efficient systems are used and carbon
from coal or oil, or nuclear) used to convert releases deriving from land-use change are
feedstocks to biofuels may result in widely excluded. Figure 23 shows estimated ranges
varying levels of greenhouse gas emissions of reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for
and also differ from one region to another. a series of crops and locations, excluding the
Most life-cycle analyses of biofuels, to effects of land-use change. Brazil, which has
date, have been undertaken for cereal and long experience of producing ethanol from
oilseeds in the EU and the United States of sugar cane, shows even greater reductions.
America and for sugar-cane ethanol in Brazil. Second-generation biofuels, although still

Life-cycle analysis for greenhouse gas balances

Life-cycle analysis for conventional fossil fuel

Crude oil Conventional

extraction fossil fuel Use in
for Refining
and (petrol transport
pre-treatment or diesel)


fertilizer, Biofuel Ethanol
pesticides, Transport processing: or
Land-use seeds, Use in
for enzymes, biodiesel
change machinery, transport
processing chemicals, and
fuel energy use co-products

Life-cycle analysis for liquid biofuel

Source: FAO.

Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of selected biofuels relative to fossil fuels

Sugar cane, Brazil


Palm oil

Sugar beet,
European Union
European Union

Maize, United States

of America

-100 -90 -80 -70 -60 -50 -40 -30 -20 -10 0
Percentage reduction

Note: Excludes the effects of land-use change. Sources: IEA, 2006, and FAO, 2008d.

insignificant at the commercial level, typically in subsequent stages of production and use.
offer emission reductions in the order of 70– When land-use changes are included in the
90 percent, compared with fossil diesel and analysis, greenhouse gas emissions for some
petrol, also excluding carbon releases related biofuel feedstocks and production systems
to land-use change. may be even higher than those for fossil
Several recent studies have found that the fuels. Fargione et al. (2008) estimated that
most marked differences in results stem from the conversion of rainforests, peatlands,
allocation methods chosen for co-products, savannahs or grasslands to produce ethanol
assumptions on nitrous oxide emissions and and biodiesel in Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia
land-use-related carbon emission changes. or the United States of America releases at
At present, a number of different methods least 17 times as much carbon dioxide as
are being used to conduct life-cycle analysis those biofuels save annually by replacing
and, as noted above, some of these do fossil fuels. They find that this “carbon
not consider the complex topic of land-use debt” would take 48 years to repay in the
change. The parameters measured and the case of Conservation Reserve Program land
quality of the data used in the assessment returned to maize ethanol production in the
need to comply with set standards. Efforts United States of America, over 300 years to
are under way within, among others, the repay if Amazonian rainforest is converted
Global Bioenergy Partnership, to develop for soybean biodiesel production, and over
a harmonized methodology for assessing 400 years to repay if tropical peatland
greenhouse gas balances. There is a similar rainforest is converted for palm-oil biodiesel
need for harmonization in assessing the production in Indonesia or Malaysia.
broader environmental and social impacts Righelato and Spracklen (2007) estimated
of bioenergy crops to ensure that results are the carbon emissions avoided by various
transparent and consistent across a wide ethanol and biodiesel feedstocks grown on
range of systems. existing cropland (i.e. sugar cane, maize,
In assessing greenhouse gas balances, wheat and sugar beet for ethanol, and
the data on emissions emanating from rapeseed and woody biomass for diesel).
land-use change are crucial if the resulting They found that, in each case, more carbon
picture is to be complete and accurate. Such would be sequestered over a 30-year period
emissions will occur early in the biofuel by converting the cropland to forest. They
production cycle and, if sufficiently large, argue that if the objective of biofuel support
may require many years before they are policies is to mitigate global warming,
compensated by emissions savings obtained then fuel efficiency and forest conservation

The Global Bioenergy Partnership

The Global Bioenergy Partnership Methane to Markets Partnership, the

(GBEP), launched at the 14th session Renewable Energy Policy Network for
of the United Nations Commission on the 21st Century, the Renewable Energy
Sustainable Development in May 2006, is and Energy Efficiency Partnership, the
an international initiative established to United Nations Conference on Trade
implement the commitments taken by the and Development (UNCTAD) BioFuels
G8+5 countries1 in the 2005 Gleneagles Initiative and the Bioenergy Implementing
Plan of Action. It promotes global high- Agreements and related tasks of the
level policy dialogue on bioenergy; International Energy Agency, among
supports national and regional bioenergy others. In addition, the Partnership
policy-making and market development; has formed a task force to work on
favours efficient and sustainable uses harmonizing methodologies for life-cycle
of biomass; develops project activities analysis and developing a methodological
in bioenergy; fosters bilateral and framework for this purpose. All these
multilateral exchange of information, initiatives provide important avenues for
skills and technology; and facilitates assisting both developing and developed
bioenergy integration into energy markets countries in building national regulatory
by tackling specific barriers in the supply frameworks for bioenergy.
The Partnership is chaired by Italy,
and FAO is a Partner and hosts the
GBEP Secretariat. GBEP cooperates with
FAO’s International Bioenergy Platform, 1
The G8+5 group comprises the G8 countries
the International Biofuels Forum, (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the
the International Partnership for the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the
United States of America), plus the five major
Hydrogen Economy, the Mediterranean emerging economies (Brazil, China, India, Mexico
Renewable Energy Programme, the and South Africa).

and restoration would be more effective be as high as US$4 520 in the EU (ethanol
alternatives. from sugar beet and maize) – much higher
Among the options for reducing than the market price of carbon dioxide-
greenhouse gas emissions that are currently equivalent offsets. Enkvist, Naucler and
being discussed, biofuels are one important Rosander (2007) report that relatively
alternative – but in many cases improving straightforward measures to reduce energy
energy efficiency and conservation, consumption, such as better insulation of
increasing carbon sequestration through new buildings or increased efficiency of
reforestation or changes in agricultural heating and air-conditioning systems, have
practices, or using other forms of renewable carbon dioxide abatement costs of less than
energy can be more cost-effective. For €40 per tonne.
example, in the United States of America, Both the scientific and policy dimensions
improving average vehicle-fuel efficiency by of sustainable bioenergy development are
one mile per gallon may reduce greenhouse evolving rapidly (almost on a weekly basis).
gas emissions as much as all current United A comprehensive understanding of the
States ethanol production from maize relevant issues, including land-use change,
(Tollefson, 2008). Doornbosch and Steenblik and proper assessment of greenhouse gas
(2007) estimated that reducing greenhouse balances are essential in order to ensure
gas emissions via biofuels costs over US$500 that bioenergy crops have a positive and
in terms of subsidies per tonne of carbon sustainable impact on climate-protection
dioxide in the United States of America efforts. The complexity of factors relating
(maize-based ethanol) and the cost can to land-use change has led to its omission

from most bioenergy life-cycle analyses but the United States of America and the EU)
it remains an essential piece of information have suggested that net greenhouse gas
that governments need to consider in balances from biofuels should be in the range
formulating national bioenergy policy. of 35–40 percent less than that of petrol. A
In addition to the impacts of feedstock careful analysis of these issues is important
production on greenhouse gas emissions, for all stakeholders, especially for exporters
biofuel processing and distribution can of bioenergy crops or fuels, as a basis for
also have other environmental impacts. As investment and production decisions and
in the hydrocarbon sector, the processing ensuring the marketability of their products.
of biofuel feedstocks can affect local air
quality with carbon monoxide, particulates,
nitrogen oxide, sulphates and volatile organic Land-use change and
compounds released by industrial processes intensification
(Dufey, 2006). However, to the extent that
biofuels can replace traditional biomass The preceding section highlighted the
such as fuelwood and charcoal, they also influence of land-use change on the
hold potential for dramatic improvements greenhouse gas balances of biofuel
in human health, particularly of women and production. When assessing the potential
children, through reduced respiratory diseases emission effects of expanding biofuel
and deaths caused by indoor air pollution. production, a clear understanding is
In some cases, national regulations needed of the extent to which increased
require importers to certify the sustainable production will be met through improved
cultivation of agricultural land, the protection land productivity or through expansion
of natural habitats and a minimum level of of cultivated area; in the latter case,
carbon dioxide savings for biofuels. Some the category of land is also significant.
countries and regional organizations (e.g. Agricultural production techniques also

BOX 10
Biofuels and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Although no international agreements in achieving sustainable development and

specifically address bioenergy, the in contributing to the ultimate objective
United Nations Framework Convention of the Convention, and to assist Parties
on Climate Change (UNFCCC) guides included in Annex 1 in complying with
Member States to “take climate-change their quantified emission limitation
considerations into account, to the extent and emissions reduction commitments.
feasible, in their relevant social, economic Since the inception of the CDM in 2005,
and environmental policies and actions, energy-industry projects have dominated
and employ appropriate methods ... with all project types registered in the CDM,
a view to minimizing adverse effects on including those for bioenergy. Within the
the economy, on public health and on the field of bioenergy, several methodologies
quality of the environment of projects or are available for projects that use biomass
measures undertaken by them to mitigate for energy generation, although there
or adapt to climate change” (UNFCCC, are only a limited number of approved
1992, Article 4). The Kyoto Protocol, which methodologies for biofuels. A biofuel
expires in 2012, provides a robust and methodology based on waste oil is already
modern framework for promoting clean available and a methodology for biofuel
technologies such as those for renewable production from cultivated biomass is
energy. under development.
The Clean Development Mechanism
(CDM), as one of the flexibility mechanisms
within the Kyoto Protocol, was designed Source: FAO, based on a contribution from the
to assist Parties not included in Annex 1 UNFCCC Secretariat.

contribute to determining greenhouse gas already under cultivation and the conversion
balances. Both factors will also determine of land not currently in crop production, such
other environmental impacts relating to soils, as grassland or forest land.
water and biodiversity.
Over the past five decades, most of the Area expansion
increase in global agricultural commodity Of the world’s 13.5 billion hectares of total
production (around 80 percent) has resulted land surface area, about 8.3 billion hectares
from yield increases, with the remainder are currently in grassland or forest and
accounted for by expansion of cropped area 1.6 billion hectares in cropland (Fischer,
and increased frequency of cultivation (FAO, 2008). An additional 2 billion hectares are
2003; Hazell and Wood, 2008). The rate of considered potentially suitable for rainfed
growth in demand for biofuels over the past crop production, as shown by Figure 24,
few years far exceeds historic rates of growth although this figure should be treated with
in demand for agricultural commodities and considerable caution. Much of the land
in crop yields. This suggests that land-use in forest, wetland or other uses provides
change – and the associated environmental valuable environmental services, including
impacts – may become a more important carbon sequestration, water filtration and
issue with respect to both first- and second- biodiversity preservation; thus, expansion
generation technologies. In the short term, of crop production in these areas could be
this demand may be satisfied primarily detrimental to the environment.
by increasing the land area under biofuel After excluding forest land, protected
crops while in the medium and long term areas and land needed to meet increased
the development of improved biofuel crop demand for food crops and livestock,
varieties, changes in agronomic practices estimates of the amount of land potentially
and new technologies (such as cellulosic available for expanded crop production lie
conversion) may begin to dominate. between 250 and 800 million hectares, most
Significant yield gains and technological of which is found in tropical Latin America or
advances will be essential for the sustainable in Africa (Fischer, 2008).
production of biofuel feedstocks in order Some of this land could be used directly
to minimize rapid land-use change in areas for biofuel feedstock production, but

Potential for cropland expansion

Million ha
1 200

1 000





Latin Sub-Saharan Industrial Transition East Asia South Asia Near East
America Africa countries countries and
and the North Africa

Arable land in use, 1997–99 Additional land with potential

for rainfed crop production

Source: FAO, 2003.


increased biofuel production on existing and the economically feasible area would be
cropland could also trigger expansion in the expected to change with increased demand
production of non-biofuel crops elsewhere. for biofuels and their feedstocks (Nelson and
For example, increased maize production Robertson, 2008). For example, 23 million
for ethanol in the central United States of hectares were withdrawn from crop
America has displaced soybean on some (primarily cereals) production in countries
existing cropland, which, in turn, may induce such as Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation
increased soybean production and conversion and Ukraine following the break-up of the
of grassland or forest land elsewhere. Thus, former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics;
both the direct and indirect land-use changes of these, an estimated 13 million hectares
caused by expanded biofuel production need could be returned to production without
to be considered for a full understanding of major environmental cost if cereal prices
potential environmental impacts. and profit margins remain high and the
In 2004, an estimated 14 million hectares, necessary investments in handling, storage
worldwide, were being used to produce and transportation infrastructure are made
biofuels and their by-products, representing (FAO, 2008e).
about 1 percent of global cropland (IEA, The sugar-cane area in Brazil is expected
2006, p. 413).11 Sugar cane is currently to almost double to 10 million hectares over
cultivated on 5.6 million hectares in Brazil, the next decade; along with expansion in the
and 54 percent of the crop (about 3 million Brazilian soybean area, this could displace
hectares) is used to produce ethanol (Naylor livestock pastures and other crops, indirectly
et al., 2007). United States farmers harvested increasing pressure on uncultivated land
30 million hectares of maize in 2004, of which (Naylor et al., 2007). China is “committed
11 percent (about 3.3 million hectares) was to preventing the return to row crop
used for ethanol (Searchinger et al., 2008). production” of land enrolled in its Grain-for-
In 2007, area planted to maize in the United Green programme, but this could increase
States of America increased by 19 percent pressure on resources in other countries,
(Naylor et al., 2007; see also Westcott, 2007, such as Cambodia and the Lao People’s
p. 8). While the United States soybean area Democratic Republic (Naylor et al., 2007).
has declined by 15 percent; Brazil’s soybean The potential significance of indirect
area is expected to increase by 6–7 percent to biofuel-induced land-use change is illustrated
43 million hectares (FAO, 2007c). by a recent analysis by Searchinger et al.
As noted in Chapter 4, land used for the (2008). They project that maize area devoted
production of biofuels and their by-products to ethanol production in the United States
is projected by the IEA to expand three- to of America could increase to 12.8 million
four-fold at the global level, depending on hectares or more by 2016, depending on
policies pursued, over the next few decades, policy and market conditions. Associated
and even more rapidly in Europe and North reductions in the area devoted to soybean,
America. OECD–FAO (2008) projections wheat and other crops would raise prices
suggest that this land will come from a and induce increased production in other
global shift towards cereals over the next countries. This could lead to an estimated
decade. The additional land needed will 10.8 million hectares of additional land being
come from non-cereal croplands in Australia, brought into cultivation worldwide, including
Canada and the United States of America; cropland expansions of 2.8 million hectares
set-aside lands in the EU or the United States in Brazil (mostly in soybean) and 2.2 million
Conservation Reserve Program; and new, hectares in China and India (mostly in maize
currently uncultivated land, especially in and wheat). If projected cropland expansion
Latin America. Some land that may not have follows the patterns observed in the 1990s,
been cultivated profitably in the past may it would come primarily from forest land
become profitable as commodity prices rise, in Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia
and sub-Saharan Africa, and primarily from
grasslands elsewhere. Critical to this scenario
Most first-generation biofuel feedstocks (e.g. maize,
is the assumption that price increases will not
sugar cane, rapeseed and palm oil) cannot be distinguished
by end-use at the crop production stage, so biofuel accelerate yield growth, at least in the short
feedstock area is inferred from biofuel production data. term.

Other studies also highlight the possible rainforest. Banse et al. (2008) also foresee
indirect land-use changes resulting from significant increases in agricultural land use,
biofuel policies (Birur, Hertel and Tyner, particularly in Africa and Latin America,
2007). Meeting current biofuel mandates arising from implementation of mandatory
and targets in the EU and the United States biofuel-blending policies in Canada, the EU,
of America would significantly increase the Japan, South Africa and the United States of
share of domestic feedstock production America.
going to biofuels while reducing commodity
exports and increasing demand for imports. Intensification
Effects would include an expansion in While area expansion for biofuel feedstock
land area devoted to coarse grains in production is likely to play a significant role
Canada and the United States of America in satisfying increased demand for biofuels
of 11–12 percent by 2010 and in the area over the next few years, the intensification
devoted to oilseeds in Brazil, Canada and of land use through improved technologies
the EU of 12–21 percent. Brazilian land and management practices will have to
prices are estimated to double as a result complement this option, especially if
of increased demand for grains, oilseeds production is to be sustained in the long
and sugar cane, suggesting that EU and term. Crop yield increases have historically
United States biofuel mandates could place been more significant in densely populated
considerable pressure on ecosystems in other Asia than in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin
parts of the world, such as the Amazon America and more so for rice and wheat

Potential for yield increase for selected biofuel feedstock crops


Yield (tonnes/ha) Yield (tonnes/ha)

10 100

8 80

6 60

4 40

2 20

0 0
United Argentina China Brazil Mexico India Mexico Brazil Thailand India China Pakistan
States of


Yield (tonnes/ha) Yield (tonnes/ha)

3.5 6
3.0 5
0.5 1
0.0 0
Germany United France China Canada India China Malaysia Colombia Indonesia Thailand Nigeria

Current yield Potential yield

Note: In some countries, current yields exceed potential yields as a result of irrigation, Source: FAO.
multiple cropping, input use and various applied production practices.

than for maize. Large-scale public and lignocellulosic feedstock, this competition
private investment in research on improving could be reduced by the higher yields
genetic materials, input and water use and that could be realized using these newer
agronomic practices have played a critical technologies.
role in achieving these yield gains (Hazell
and Wood, 2008; Cassman et al., 2005).
Despite significant gains in crop yields at How will biofuel production affect
the global level and in most regions, yields water, soils and biodiversity?
have lagged in sub-Saharan Africa. Actual
yields are still below their potential in most The intensification of agricultural production
regions – as shown by Figure 25 – suggesting systems for biofuel feedstocks and the
that considerable scope remains for increased conversion of existing and new croplands
production on existing cropland. Evenson will have environmental effects beyond
and Gollin (2003) documented a significant their impacts on greenhouse gas emissions.
lag in the adoption of modern high-yielding The nature and extent of these impacts
crop varieties, particularly in Africa. Africa are dependent on factors such as scale of
has also failed to keep pace with the use of production, type of feedstock, cultivation
other yield-enhancing technologies such as and land-management practices, location
integrated nutrient and pest management, and downstream processing routes. Evidence
irrigation and conservation tillage. remains limited on the impacts specifically
Just as increased demand for biofuels associated with intensified biofuel
induces direct and indirect changes in production, although most of the problems
land use, it can also be expected to trigger are similar to those already associated
changes in yields, both directly in the with agricultural production – water
production of biofuel feedstocks and depletion and pollution, soil degradation,
indirectly in the production of other crops – nutrient depletion and the loss of wild and
provided that appropriate investments are agricultural biodiversity.
made to improve infrastructure, technology
and access to information, knowledge and Impacts on water resources
markets. A number of analytical studies Water, rather than land, scarcity may prove
are beginning to assess the changes in land to be the key limiting factor for biofuel
use to be expected from increased biofuel feedstock production in many contexts.
demand, but little empirical evidence is yet About 70 percent of freshwater withdrawn
available on which to base predictions on worldwide is used for agricultural purposes
how yields will be affected – either directly or (Comprehensive Assessment of Water
indirectly – or how quickly. In one example, Management in Agriculture, 2007). Water
ethanol experts in Brazil believe that, even resources for agriculture are becoming
without genetic improvements in sugar cane, increasingly scarce in many countries as
yield increases in the range of 20 percent a result of increased competition with
could be achieved over the next ten years domestic or industrial uses. Moreover, the
simply through improved management in expected impacts of climate change in terms
the production chain (Squizato, 2008). of reduced rainfall and runoff in some key
Some of the crops currently used as producer regions (including the Near East,
feedstocks in liquid biofuel production North Africa and South Asia) will place
require high-quality agricultural land and further pressure on already scarce resources.
major inputs in terms of fertilizer, pesticides Biofuels currently account for about
and water to generate economically 100 km3 (or 1 percent) of all water transpired
viable yields. The degree of competition by crops worldwide, and about 44 km3 (or
for resources between energy crops and 2 percent) of all irrigation water withdrawals
food and fodder production will depend, (de Fraiture, Giordano and Yongsong, 2007).
among other factors, on progress in crop Many of the crops currently used for biofuel
yields, efficiency of livestock feeds and production – such as sugar cane, oil palm
biofuel conversion technologies. With and maize – have relatively high water
second-generation technologies based on requirements at commercial yield levels (see

Table 10) and are therefore best suited to of water resources in South Asia and East
high-rainfall tropical areas, unless they can and Southeast Asia, there is very little land
be irrigated. (Rainfed production of biofuel available for extra irrigated agriculture.
feedstocks is significant in Brazil, where Most potential for expansion is limited
76 percent of sugar-cane production is under to Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.
rainfed conditions, and in the United States However, in the latter region it is expected
of America, where 70 percent of maize that the current low levels of irrigation water
production is rainfed.) Even perennial plants withdrawals will increase only slowly.
such as jatropha and pongamia that can be Producing more biofuel crops will affect
grown in semi-arid areas on marginal or water quality as well as quantity. Converting
degraded lands may require some irrigation pastures or woodlands into maize fields,
during hot and dry summers. Further, the for example, may exacerbate problems
processing of feedstocks into biofuels can use such as soil erosion, sedimentation and
large quantities of water, mainly for washing excess nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorous)
plants and seeds and for evaporative cooling. runoff into surface waters, and infiltration
However, it is irrigated production of these into groundwater from increased fertilizer
key biofuel feedstocks that will have the application. Excess nitrogen in the Mississippi
greatest impact on local water resource river system is a major cause of the oxygen-
balances. Many irrigated sugar-producing starved “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico,
regions in southern and eastern Africa and where many forms of marine life cannot
northeastern Brazil are already operating survive. Runge and Senauer (2007) argue that
near the hydrological limits of their as maize–soybean rotations are displaced
associated river basins. The Awash, Limpopo, by maize cropped continuously for ethanol
Maputo, Nile and São Francisco river basins production in the United States of America,
are cases in point. major increases in nitrogen fertilizer
While the potential for expansion of application and runoff will aggravate these
irrigated areas may appear high in some areas problems.
on the basis of water resources and land, the Biodiesel and ethanol production results
actual scope for increased biofuel production in organically contaminated wastewater
under irrigated conditions on existing or new that, if released untreated, could increase
irrigated lands is limited by infrastructural eutrophication of surface waterbodies.
requirements to guarantee water deliveries However, existing wastewater treatment
and by land-tenure systems that may not technologies can deal effectively with
conform with commercialized production organic pollutants and wastes. Fermentation
systems. Equally, expansion may be systems can reduce the biological oxygen
constrained by higher marginal costs of water demand of wastewater by more than
storage (the most economic sites have already 90 percent, so that water can be reused for
been taken) and land acquisition. Figure 26 processing, and methane can be captured
shows that the potential for growth for the in the treatment system and used for power
Near East and North Africa region is reaching generation. As regards the distribution
its limit. While there remains an abundance and storage phases of the cycle, because
Water requirements for biofuel crops
Annual obtainable Energy Evapotranspiration Potential crop Rainfed crop Irrigated crop
fuel yield yield equivalent evapotranspiration evapotranspiration water requirement

(Litres/ha) (GJ/ha) (Litres/litre fuel) (mm/ha) (mm/ha) (mm/ha)1 (Litres/litre fuel)

Sugar cane 6 000 120 2 000 1 400 1 000 800 1 333

Maize 3 500 70 1 357 550 400 300 857

Oil palm 5 500 193 2 364 1 500 1 300 0 0

Rapeseed 1 200 42 3 333 500 400 0 0

On the assumption of 50 percent irrigation efficiency.
Source: FAO.

ethanol and biodiesel are biodegradable, on water quality (Hill et al., 2006; Tilman,
the potential for negative impacts on soil Hill and Lehman, 2006).
and water from leakage and spills is reduced
compared with that of fossil fuels. Impacts on soil resources
In Brazil, where sugar cane for ethanol is Both land-use change and intensification
grown primarily under rainfed conditions, of agricultural production on existing
water availability is not a constraint, croplands can have significant adverse
but water pollution associated with the impacts on soils, but these impacts – just as
application of fertilizers and agrochemicals, for any crop – depend critically on farming
soil erosion, sugar-cane washing and other techniques. Inappropriate cultivation
steps in the ethanol production process practices can reduce soil organic matter
are major concerns (Moreira, 2007). Most and increase soil erosion by removing
milling wastewater (vinasse) is used for permanent soil cover. The removal of plant
irrigation and fertilization of the sugar- residues can reduce soil nutrient contents
cane plantations, thus reducing both water and increase greenhouse gas emissions
demands and eutrophication risks. through losses of soil carbon.
Pesticides and other chemicals can wash On the other hand, conservation
into waterbodies, negatively affecting tillage, crop rotations and other improved
water quality. Maize, soybeans and other management practices can, under the
biofuel feedstocks differ markedly in their right conditions, reduce adverse impacts
fertilizer and pesticide requirements. Of or even improve environmental quality in
the principal feedstocks, maize is subject conjunction with increased biofuel feedstock
to the highest application rates of both production. Growing perennials such as
fertilizer and pesticides per hectare. Per unit palm, short-rotation coppice, sugar cane
of energy gained, biofuels from soybean or switchgrass instead of annual crops can
and other low-input, high-diversity prairie improve soil quality by increasing soil cover
biomass are estimated to require only and organic carbon levels. In combination
a fraction of the nitrogen, phosphorus with no-tillage and reduced fertilizer
and pesticides required by maize, and pesticide inputs, positive impacts on
with correspondingly lower impacts biodiversity can be obtained.

Potential for irrigated area expansion

Million ha







South Asia East and Latin America Near East Sub-Saharan
Southeast and the and Africa
Asia Caribbean North Africa

Irrigated area, 2001 Area suitable for irrigation

Source: FAO.

Different feedstocks vary in terms of material and can also lead to reduced use
their soil impacts, nutrient demand and the of traditional varieties.
extent of land preparation they require. The The first pathway for biodiversity loss
IEA (2006, p. 393) notes that the impact of is habitat loss following land conversion
sugar cane on soils is generally less than that for crop production, for example from
of rapeseed, maize and other cereals. Soil forest or grassland. As the CBD (2008)
quality is maintained by recycling nutrients notes, many current biofuel crops are well
from sugar-mill and distillery wastes, but suited for tropical areas. This increases the
using more bagasse as an energy input to economic incentives in countries with biofuel
ethanol production would reduce recycling. production potential to convert natural
Extensive production systems require re-use ecosystems into feedstock plantations (e.g.
of residues to recycle nutrients and maintain oil palm), causing a loss of wild biodiversity
soil fertility; typically only 25–33 percent of in these areas. While oil palm plantations do
available crop residues from grasses or maize not need much fertilizer or pesticide, even on
can be harvested sustainably (Doornbosch poor soils, their expansion can lead to loss of
and Steenblik, 2007, p. 15, citing Wilhelm rainforests. Although loss of natural habitats
et al., 2007). By creating a market for through land conversion for biofuel feedstock
agricultural residues, increased demand production has been reported in some
for energy could, if not properly managed, countries (Curran et al., 2004; Soyka, Palmer
divert residues to the production of biofuels, and Engel, 2007), the data and analysis
with potentially detrimental effects on soil needed to assess its extent and consequences
quality, especially on soil organic matter are still lacking. Nelson and Robertson (2008)
(Fresco, 2007). examined how rising commodity prices
Hill et al. (2006) found that the production caused by increased biofuel demand could
of soybean for biodiesel in the United States induce land-use change and intensification in
of America requires much less fertilizer Brazil, and found that agricultural expansion
and pesticide per unit of energy produced driven by higher prices could endanger areas
than does maize. But they argue that both rich in bird species diversity.
feedstocks require higher input levels and The second major pathway is loss of
better-quality land than would second- agrobiodiversity, induced by intensification
generation feedstocks such as switchgrass, on croplands, in the form of crop genetic
woody plants or diverse mixtures of prairie uniformity. Most biofuel feedstock
grasses and forbs (see also Tilman, Hill and plantations are based on a single species.
Lehman, 2006). Perennial lignocellulosic There are also concerns about low levels
crops such as eucalyptus, poplar, willow or of genetic diversity in grasses used as
grasses require less-intensive management feedstocks, such as sugar cane (The
and fewer fossil-energy inputs and can also Royal Society, 2008), which increases the
be grown on poor-quality land, while soil susceptibility of these crops to new pests and
carbon and quality will also tend to increase diseases. Conversely, the reverse is true for
over time (IEA, 2006). a crop such as jatropha, which possesses an
extremely high degree of genetic diversity,
Impacts on biodiversity most of which is unimproved, resulting in a
Biofuel production can affect wild and broad range of genetic characteristics that
agricultural biodiversity in some positive undermine its commercial value (IFAD/FAO/
ways, such as through the restoration of UNF, 2008).
degraded lands, but many of its impacts With respect to second-generation
will be negative, for example when natural feedstocks, some of the promoted species
landscapes are converted into energy- are classified as invasive species, raising new
crop plantations or peat lands are drained concerns over how to manage them and
(CBD, 2008). In general, wild biodiversity is avoid unintended consequences. Moreover,
threatened by loss of habitat when the area many of the enzymes needed for their
under crop production is expanded, whereas conversion are genetically modified to
agricultural biodiversity is vulnerable in increase their efficiency and would need to
the case of large-scale monocropping, be carefully managed within closed industrial
which is based on a narrow pool of genetic production processes (CFC, 2007).

Positive effects on biodiversity have the introduction of biofuel production on
been noted in degraded or marginal areas marginal lands depends critically on the
where new perennial mixed species have nature and security of their rights to land.
been introduced to restore ecosystem It is not unusual to hear claims that
functioning and increase biodiversity significant tracts of marginal land exist that
(CBD, 2008). Experimental data from test could be dedicated to biofuel production,
plots on degraded and abandoned soils thus reducing the conflict with food crops
(Tilman, Hill and Lehman, 2006) show and offering a new source of income to poor
that low-input high-diversity mixtures of farmers. Although such lands would be less
native grassland perennials – which offer productive and subject to higher risks, using
a range of ecosystem services, including them for bioenergy plantations could have
wildlife habitat, water filtration and carbon secondary benefits, such as restoration of
sequestration – also produce higher net degraded vegetation, carbon sequestration
energy gains (measured as energy released and local environmental services. In most
on combustion), greater greenhouse gas countries, however, the suitability of this
emission reductions and less agrichemical land for sustainable biofuel production is
pollution than do maize-ethanol or poorly documented.
soybean-biodiesel and that performance Growing any crop on marginal land
increases with the number of species. with low levels of water and nutrient
The authors of this study also found that inputs will result in lower yields. Drought-
switchgrass can be highly productive on tolerant jatropha and sweet sorghum are
fertile soils, especially when fertilizer no exception. To produce commercially
and pesticides are applied, but that its acceptable yield levels, plant and tree species
performance on poor soils does not match cannot be stressed beyond certain limits; in
that of diverse native perennials. fact, they will benefit from modest levels of
additional inputs. Thus, while improved crops
may offer potential over the longer term,
Can biofuels be produced on adequate nutrients, water and management
marginal lands? are still needed to ensure economically
meaningful yields – implying that even hardy
Marginal or degraded lands are often crops grown on marginal lands will still
characterized by lack of water, which compete to some extent with food crops for
constrains both plant growth and nutrient resources such as nutrients and water.
availability, and by low soil fertility and Numerous studies confirm that the value
high temperatures. Common problems in of the higher economic yields from good
these areas include vegetation degradation, agricultural land usually outweighs any
water and wind erosion, salinization, additional costs. Thus, there is a strong
soil compaction and crusting, and soil- likelihood that sustained demand for
nutrient depletion. Pollution, acidification, biofuels would intensify the pressure on the
alkalization and waterlogging may also occur good lands where higher returns could be
in some locations. realized (Azar and Larson, 2000).
Biofuel crops that can tolerate
environmental conditions where food crops
might fail may offer the opportunity to Ensuring environmentally
put to productive use land that presently sustainable biofuel production
yields few economic benefits. Crops
such as cassava, castor, sweet sorghum, Good practices
jatropha and pongamia are potential Good practices aim to apply available
candidates, as are tree crops that tolerate knowledge to address the sustainability
dry conditions, such as eucalyptus. It is dimensions of on-farm biofuel feedstock
important to note, however, that marginal production, harvesting and processing.
lands often provide subsistence services to This aim applies to natural-resource
the rural poor, including many agricultural management issues such as land, soil, water
activities performed by women. Whether and biodiversity as well as to the life-cycle
the poor stand to benefit or suffer from analysis used to estimate greenhouse gas

BOX 11
Jatropha – a “miracle” crop?

As an energy crop, Jatropha curcas (L.) production as well as small-scale rural

(jatropha) is making a lot of headlines. development. International and national
The plant is drought-tolerant, grows well investors are rushing to establish large
on marginal land, needs only moderate areas for jatropha cultivation in Belize,
rainfall of between 300 and 1 000 mm per Brazil, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Gambia,
year, is easy to establish, can help reclaim Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mozambique,
eroded land and grows quickly. These Myanmar, the Philippines, Senegal and the
characteristics appeal to many developing United Republic of Tanzania. The largest-
countries that are concerned about scale venture is the Indian Government’s
diminishing tree cover and soil fertility “National Mission” to cultivate jatropha
and are looking for an energy crop that on 400 000 hectares within the period
minimizes competition with food crops. 2003–07 (Gonsalves, 2006). By 2011–12,
At the same time, this small tree produces the goal is to replace 20 percent of diesel
seeds after two to five years containing consumption with biodiesel produced
30 percent oil by kernel weight – oil that is from jatropha, cultivated on around
already being used to make soap, candles 10 million hectares of wasteland and
and cosmetics and has similar medicinal generating year-round employment for
properties to castor oil, but is also useful 5 million people (Gonsalves, 2006; Francis,
for cooking and electricity generation. Edinger and Becker, 2005). The original
A native of northern Latin/Central target may well be ambitious, as Euler and
America, there are three varieties Gorriz (2004) report that probably only
of jatropha: Nicaraguan, Mexican a fraction of the initial 400 000 hectares
(distinguished by its less- or non-toxic allocated to jatropha by the Indian
seed) and Cape Verde. The third of these Government is actually under cultivation.
varieties became established in Cape Verde The plant also grows widely in Africa,
and from there spread to parts of Africa often as hedges separating properties in
and Asia. On Cape Verde it was grown on towns and villages. In Mali, thousands
a large scale for export to Portugal for oil of kilometres of jatropha hedges can be
extraction and soap-making. At its peak, found; they protect gardens from livestock
in 1910, jatropha exports reached over and can also help reduce damage and
5 600 tonnes (Heller, 1996). erosion from wind and water. The seed
The many positive attributes claimed for is already used for soap-making and
jatropha have translated into numerous medicinal purposes, and jatropha oil
projects for large-scale oil and/or biodiesel is now also being promoted by a non-

emissions and determine whether a specific crop rotations. In the context of the current
biofuel is more climate-change friendly than focus on carbon storage and on technologies
a fossil fuel. In practical terms, soil, water that reduce energy intensity it seems
and crop protection; energy and water especially appropriate. The approach also
management; nutrient and agrochemical proves responsive to situations where labour
management; biodiversity and landscape is scarce and there is a need to conserve soil
conservation; harvesting, processing and moisture and fertility. Interventions such
distribution all count among the areas as mechanical soil tillage are reduced to a
where good practices are needed to address minimum, and inputs such as agrochemicals
sustainable bioenergy development. and nutrients of mineral or organic origin are
Conservation agriculture is one practice that applied at an optimum level and in amounts
sets out to achieve sustainable and profitable that do not disrupt biological processes.
agriculture for farmers and rural people Conservation agriculture has been shown to
by employing minimum soil disturbance, be effective across a variety of agro-ecological
permanent organic soil cover and diversified zones and farming systems.


governmental organization to power soil reclamation and erosion control,

multifunctional platforms, a slow-speed and be used for living fences, firewood,
diesel engine containing an oil expeller, a green manure, lighting fuel, local soap
generator, a small battery charger and a production, insecticides and medicinal
grinding mill (UNDP, 2004). Pilot projects applications. However, they conclude that
promoting jatropha oil as an energy claims of high oil yields in combination
source for small-scale rural electrification with low nutrient requirements (soil
projects are under way in the United fertility), lower water use, low labour
Republic of Tanzania and other African inputs, the non-existence of competition
countries. with food production and tolerance
Despite considerable investment and to pests and diseases are unsupported
projects being undertaken in many by scientific evidence. The most critical
countries, reliable scientific data on the gaps are the lack of improved varieties
agronomy of jatropha are not available. and available seed. Jatropha has not yet
Information on the relationship between been domesticated as a crop with reliable
yields and variables such as soil, climate, performance.
crop management and crop genetic The fear that the rush into jatropha
material on which to base investment on the basis of unrealistic expectations
decisions is poorly documented. What will not only lead to financial losses but
evidence there is shows a wide range of also undermine confidence among local
yields that cannot be linked to relevant communities – a recurrent theme in many
parameters such as soil fertility and water African countries – appears to be well
availability (Jongschaap et al., 2007). founded. Sustainable jatropha plantations
Experience with jatropha plantations in will mean taking the uncertainty out
the 1990s, such as the “Proyecto Tempate” of production and marketing. Further
in Nicaragua, which ran from 1991 to research is needed on suitable germplasm
1999, ended in failure (Euler and Gorriz, and on yields under different conditions,
2004). and markets need to be established to
Indeed, it appears that the many promote sustainable development of
positive claims for the plant are not the crop.
based on mature project experiences.
Jongschaap et al. (2007) argue that,
on a modest scale, jatropha cultivation
can help with soil-water conservation,

Good farming practices coupled with the question remains of how they can best
good forestry practices could greatly reduce be assessed and reflected in field activities.
the environmental costs associated with Existing environmental impact-assessment
the possible promotion of sustainable techniques and strategic environmental
intensification at forest margins. Approaches assessments offer a good starting point for
based on agro-silvo-pasture-livestock analysing the biophysical factors. There
integration could be considered also when also exists a wealth of technical knowledge
bioenergy crops form part of the mix. drawn from agricultural development during
the past 60 years. New contributions from
Standards, sustainability criteria and the bioenergy context include analytical
compliance frameworks for bioenergy and food security
Although the multiple and diverse and for bioenergy impact analysis (FAO,
environmental impacts of bioenergy forthcoming (a) and (b)); work on the
development do not differ substantively aggregate environmental impacts, including
from those of other forms of agriculture, soil acidification, excessive fertilizer use,

biodiversity loss, air pollution and pesticide establishment of such a system and are the
toxicity (Zah et al., 2007); and work on risks sufficiently great that its absence would
social and environmental sustainability pose significant, irreversible threats to
criteria, including limits on deforestation, human health or the environment? Should
competition with food production, adverse biofuels be treated more stringently than
impacts on biodiversity, soil erosion and other agricultural commodities?
nutrient leaching (Faaij, 2007). On the one hand, given that most
The biofuel sector is characterized environmental impacts of biofuels are
by a wide range of stakeholders with indistinguishable from those of increased
diverse interests. This, combined with agricultural production in general, it could
the rapid evolution of the sector, has led be argued that equal standards should be
to a proliferation of initiatives to ensure applied across the board. Furthermore,
sustainable bioenergy development. restricting land-use change could foreclose
Principles, criteria and requirements are opportunities for developing countries
under consideration among many private to benefit from increased demand for
and public groups, along with compliance agricultural commodities. On the other
mechanisms to assess performance and hand, there are also strong arguments that
guide development of the sector. The agricultural producers and policy-makers
Global Bioenergy Partnership’s task forces should learn from earlier mistakes and
on greenhouse gas methodologies and avoid the negative environmental impacts
on sustainability, and the round table on that have accompanied agricultural land
sustainable biofuels, count among these, conversion and intensification in the past.
together with many other public, private Solutions to this dilemma will require
and non-profit efforts. Such diversity careful dialogue and negotiation among
suggests that a process for harmonizing countries if the combined goals of
the various approaches may be needed, agricultural productivity growth and
especially in the light of policy mandates environmental sustainability are to be
and targets that serve to stimulate further achieved. A starting point might be
biofuel production. found by establishing best practices for
Most of the criteria are currently being sustainable production of biofuels, which
developed in industrialized countries can then also help transform farming
and are aimed at ensuring that biofuels practices for non-biofuel crops. In time,
are produced, distributed and used in an and accompanied by capacity-building
environmentally sustainable manner before efforts for the countries that need it,
they are traded in international markets. more stringent standards and certification
The European Commission, for example, systems could be established.
has already proposed criteria that it One option to explore could be
considers to be compatible with WTO rules payments for environmental services in
(personal communication, E. Deurwaarder, combination with biofuel production.
European Commission, 2008). However, Payments for environmental services were
to date none have yet been tested, discussed in detail in the 2007 edition of
especially in conjunction with government The State of Food and Agriculture. This
support schemes such as subsidies or when mechanism would compensate farmers
designated for preferential treatment under for providing specific environmental
international trade agreements (Doornbosch services using production methods that are
and Steenblik, 2007; UNCTAD, 2008). environmentally more sustainable. Payments
The term “standards” implies rigorous could be linked to compliance with
systems for measuring parameters against standards and certification schemes agreed
defined criteria, in which failure to comply at the international level. Payment schemes
would prevent a country from exporting its for environmental services, although
product. Such internationally agreed systems challenging and complicated to implement,
already exist for a range of food safety, could constitute a further tool to ensure
chemical and human health topics. Is the that biofuels are produced in a sustainable
biofuel sector sufficiently developed for the manner.

annual crops with perennial feedstocks
Key messages of the chapter (such as oil palm, jatropha or perennial
grasses) can improve soil carbon
• Biofuels are only one component of balances, but converting tropical forests
a range of alternatives for mitigating for crop production of any kind can
greenhouse gas emissions. Depending release quantities of greenhouse gases
on the policy objectives, other options that far exceed potential annual savings
may prove more cost-effective, from biofuels.
including different forms of renewable • Availability of water resources, limited
energy, increased energy efficiency by technical and institutional factors,
and conservation, and reduced will constrain the amount of biofuel
emissions from deforestation and land feedstock production in countries that
degradation. would otherwise have a comparative
• Notwithstanding that the impacts advantage in their production.
of increased biofuel production on • Regulatory approaches to standards
greenhouse gas emissions, land, and certification may not be the first or
water and biodiversity vary widely best option for ensuring broad-based
across countries, biofuels, feedstocks and equitable participation in biofuel
and production practices, there is production. Systems that incorporate
a strong and immediate need for best practices and capacity building
harmonized approaches to life-cycle may yield better short-term results and
analysis, greenhouse gas balances and provide the flexibility needed to adapt
sustainability criteria. to changing circumstances. Payments
• Greenhouse gas balances are not positive for environmental services may also
for all feedstocks. For climate-change represent an instrument for encouraging
purposes, investment should be directed compliance with sustainable production
towards crops that have the highest methods.
positive greenhouse gas balances with • Biofuel feedstocks and other food and
the lowest environmental and social agricultural crops should be treated
costs. similarly. The environmental concerns
• Environmental impacts can be generated over biofuel feedstock production
at all stages of biofuel feedstock are the same as for the impacts of
production and processing, but processes increased agricultural production
related to land-use change and in general; therefore measures to
intensification tend to dominate. Over ensure sustainability should be applied
the next decade, rapid policy-driven consistently to all crops.
growth in demand for biofuels is likely • Good agricultural practices, such as
to accelerate the conversion of non- conservation agriculture, can reduce
agricultural lands to crop production. the carbon footprint and the adverse
This will occur directly for biofuel environmental impacts of biofuel
feedstock production and indirectly production – just as they can for
for other crops displaced from existing extensive agricultural production in
cropland. general. Perennial feedstock crops,
• Yield increases and careful use of such as grasses or trees, can diversify
inputs will be essential components production systems and help improve
in alleviating land-use pressure from marginal or degraded land.
both food and energy crops. Dedicated • Domestic government policy must
research, investment in technology become better informed of the
and strengthened institutions and international consequences of biofuel
infrastructure will be required. development. International dialogue,
• Environmental impacts vary widely across often through existing mechanisms,
feedstocks, production practices and can help formulate realistic and
locations, and depend critically on how achievable biofuel mandates and
land-use change is managed. Replacing targets.