Can bioenergy make a significant contribution to our future energy demands while also having positive effects for the environment and social development? Some 137 scientists from 24 countries set out to find the answer in the SCOPE research project. LEI Wageningen UR made a valuable contribution to the recently presented final report.
The research was carried out on behalf of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, a leading international non-governmental organisation. LEI Wageningen UR took the lead for the chapter on bioenergy, economy and policy in the comprehensive report. The socio-economic research institute also contributed to the chapter on bioenergy and food security. Here, Hans van Meijl, Biobased and Circular Economy programme manager, summarises the main findings from the report.
What conclusions did you draw from an economic perspective?
“We found that there are two important driving factors behind the rise of bioenergy. Firstly, activities are still very dependent on stimulation by government policy. This policy is necessary as the bioenergy sector is still in its infancy and, to a large extent, cannot compete economically with the fossil industry, which matured long ago. The goal of the stimulation, however, should be to help the industry stand on its own two feet or to ensure that financial incentives are in line with positive external effects such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Regulation should tackle any negative side effects on land, water and biodiversity. It is important to be careful, though; there are too many regulations that obstruct investments by innovative companies and yet technological development is a crucial part of becoming competitive.
The second factor is that bioenergy has benefited considerably from rising oil prices – although they dropped significantly in the past year. Due to technological developments and the complete utilisation of biomass, bioenergy can eventually become a complete alternative to fossil energy.”
LEI Wageningen UR also contributed to the research into the effects of bioenergy on global food security. What can you say about this subject?
“To begin with, the relationship between bioenergy and food security is extremely complex. Having fallen for many decades, food prices have increased over the past year. This increase was partially caused by rising energy prices, as they form a major part of food costs (including aspects such as artificial fertiliser, fuel and transport costs). Biofuels have only made a limited contribution so far, however. This means that it would be unfair to hold biofuels responsible for the increasing food prices. Moreover, rising food prices are not necessarily bad for people in poor areas. Two thirds of people living in poverty still depend on agriculture. Higher prices result in a higher income for local farmers. We also see increasing wealth in areas where bio-plantations were established. This in turn leads to a better infrastructure, allowing people to become more connected to the world and earn money to buy artificial fertiliser, new technology and better seeds. The downside is that a third of global poverty is concentrated in cities, where people are indeed affected by increasing food prices.”
The report states that the availability of land is not a limiting factor for bioenergy. How so?
“Scientists looked into the amount of land worldwide that is not yet being used for food supply or crops for biofuel. If you include these marginal soils, there is potentially sufficient land available for bioenergy. As economists, however, we also look at the costs required to make land accessible, which are often still too high. At the moment it is more realistic to work globally on achieving higher yields per hectare, as there are still major efficiency improvements to be made.”