Make biofuels while sun shines

The initial euphoria over the potential of biofuels to replace fossil fuels has died down. In its place numerous scientific and popular reports have appeared about the potential adverse effects that its production might have on agriculture and conservation.

Although many of these reports are scientifically correct, they often assume the status quo in terms of social and political constraints. Their primary focus is also first-generation biofuels, which most experts agree are not sustainable in the long run.

I do not want to refute the results of a study published in the South African Journal of Science and highlighted in the Mail & Guardian (July 17, “Biofuel production could threaten fynbos”).

We should take a longer-term view towards a sustainable future.
It is important to use the same yardstick when evaluating agricultural and industrial practices and, of course, biofuel production.

Imagine the following newspaper headlines appearing in the past 300 years: “Wheat production in the Western Cape seriously threatens Renosterveld biodiversity”, “Pristine Free State grasslands under threat because of maize production”, or even “Coal mining in Mpumalanga threatens water quality”.

These practices have had a negative impact on the conservation and vegetation of these areas. Despite this knowledge, no one seems prepared to go hungry or without heat and electricity.

When pointing out unsustainable culprits, it makes no sense to “red flag” only new renewable technologies and to conveniently ignore established agricultural practices and other bad industrial habits.

We should rather adopt a long-term approach and define a sustainable yardstick to measure the sustainability of all technologies and practices, old and new. Ultimately we must be prepared to phase out and replace dirty and unsustainable practices with cleaner and better practices. Furthermore, we should be bold and not place political and social agendas ahead of good judgment when discussing what is required for a sustainable future.

According to a comprehensive report in October 2008 by the European Renewable Energy Council and Greenpeace (www.energyblueprint.info), a sustainable world can be created by 2100. Of course, this is if we are willing to embark on a deliberate path to invest trillions of dollars by 2030 into sustainable technologies and practices and to phase out dirty technologies.

The report also projects that bio-energy could contribute 20% of energy needs with other renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, oceanic and hydro power.

Sustainability must be the buzz-word when thinking about bioenergy production. With the world being the interconnected global village that it is, such a discussion needs to be undertaken on a worldwide scale and not only within the context of one crop species, one region or even one continent.

Therefore biofuels’ researchers at Stellenbosch University have joined some of the world’s leading experts in the Global Sustainable Bioenergy: Feasibility and Implementation Paths project (GSB) (www.engineering.dartmouth.edu/gsbproject) to address the uncertainty surrounding these issues.

GSB places new issues—such as climate change, increased production yields and enhanced technological advancement—. within the context of sustainable bioenergy production. The three-stage project will start in November 2009 with meetings at five places around the world to examine and plan for issues within a regional and continental context.

Africa has arguably the greatest potential for bioenergy-biofuels production.

The continent’s efforts in this direction are flawed by uncoordinated and ill-informed projects that focus on first-generation crops. On top of this, weak political commitment and a lack of a policy framework for the whole continent leave Africa vulnerable to exploitation from abroad, as has been the case with other resources in the past.

Scientific and well-coordinated projects such as GSB can unveil the continent’s true promise and also help bioenergy to become an important strategic partner to Africa’s agriculture and forestry sectors. It addresses energy security while also assisting in economic wealth creation to the larger population. Locally, it can serve the goals of the accelerated and shared growth initiative for South Africa by linking the first and second economies and aligning with government’s strategic objectives.

Emile van Zyl is a professor of microbiology at Stellenbosch University

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