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Biofuels in Bali

With the end of the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol just four years away, representatives from more than 180 countries recently met in Nusa Dua, Indonesia, on the island of Bali to agree on a new path toward the adoption of a second-generation protocol. Included in this group were biofuels industry spokespeople.
By Jessica Ebert
High drama defined two weeks in early December when some 11,000 government officials, environmentalists, industry lobbyists and journalists met in Bali, Indonesia, for the launch of negotiations on a climate change deal for a post-Kyoto Protocol world. Emotions welled and spilled over into tears, boos, hissing, insults and threats. Most of these were directed at, or in response, to the obstructionist positions taken by U.S. delegates to the U.N. Climate Change Conference. However, as tempers flared and the last minutes of the summit ticked away, the United States made a turnaround that secured the adoption of what is being dubbed the Bali Roadmap.

The tension at the summit was said to be palpable; the culmination of a year marked by reports and conferences that brought an increasing urgency for action to mitigate the most devastating effects of climate change. "It was a very intense atmosphere with constant debates," says Oliver Schaefer, policy director for the European Renewable Energy Council, an umbrella group for Europe's renewable energy industry. "Everybody was aware that this was a really important meeting; that we could be somewhere where a decisive decision was made for future generations."

The summit came fast on the heels of the release of the final installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report and a U.N. event for heads of state and other top officials to advance the global agenda on climate change, which was held at U.N. headquarters in New York City. At this one-day, high-level event, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, which recently won the Nobel Prize for its work, reviewed the panel's report. "To start with, let me say that we, the human race, have substantially altered the Earth's atmosphere," he said. "Adaptation alone will not do. We need to bring about mitigation actions to start in the short term even when benefits may arrive in a few decades."

This is the first report in the IPCC's nearly 20-year history that asserts with more than 90 percent certainty that greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide in particular, are rising as a result of human activities and that these gases are the main cause of the planet's recent warming. Without action to curb emissions, millions of people will be affected by weather extremes such as longer droughts, heavier precipitation, more severe storms, rising sea levels, floods and heat waves. According to a consensus document signed by more than 200 scientists and released at the Bali conference, to stave off the worst of these effects, global emissions must peak and decline in the next 10 to 15 years and ultimately must be reduced by at least 50 percent below their 1990 levels by the year 2050.

"A large part of the solution is available to us today, what we need is political will," said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change at a pre-conference press briefing in Bali. "I sense an incredible growing international awareness of the importance of climate change and recognition among the general public that politicians need to come to grips with this issue," he said. "Millions of people around the world will be focusing their attention on what will be the response of the politicians to that very clear message given to them by the scientific community."

How Do Biofuels Fit In?
Although biofuels didn't play a significant role in the plenary sessions of the conference, the specialized workshops and side events were littered with speakers representing the interest of the biofuels industry. "We went there to talk about renewables as much as possible, and to make people aware of renewables ranging from wind to solar to biofuels," Schaefer explains. "If you were there you would realize that the awareness about any kind of renewable sources is not very high. People tend to talk more about nuclear and clean coal and carbon sequestration." In past negotiations, Schaefer says, the nuclear and coal industries were strongly represented. "They pushed themselves into people's brains so now we're trying to counter that a little bit," he says.

In addition to injecting new ideas into the mix in Bali, biofuels supporters had to contend with the concerns of certain green groups about the social and environmental costs of producing biofuels. "As in most public debates, on the one side biofuels are blessed for being a solution to security, supply and climate goals," Schaefer says. "On the other hand, they are seen by many environmentalists as something terrible."

In a survey released by The World Conservation Union mid-way through the Bali talks, of 1,000 climate decision makers and influencers surveyed from across 105 countries, first-generation biofuels from agricultural crops were found to be the least likely of 18 technologies to play a significant role in lowering overall carbon levels in the atmosphere. Topping the list were solar, wind, cogeneration and wave energy technologies. Coming in at a respectable No. 7 was second-generation biofuels from waste residues.

This distinction between first- and second-generation biofuels and between sustainably and unsustainably grown feedstocks is one that D1 Oils plc, the UK-based biodiesel producer brought to the forefront at the Bali talks in a call for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to stop their generic condemnation of the global biodiesel industry. "Environmental and development NGOs are right to be critical of soya and palm that are produced unsustainably in areas such as Brazil and Indonesia," said Karl Watkin, founder and nonexecutive director of D1 Oils. "Because these attacks don't differentiate the sustainable biofuel crops like jatropha from the less sustainable like soya and palm, the NGO campaigns are undermining the industry as a whole."

Efforts to gain support for sustainably produced biofuels will be critical as the world moves toward negotiating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. "Although biofuels haven't played a major role in the Kyoto Protocol yet, if we see the ambitious goals and the ambitious actions that are necessary to effectively fight climate change you will see that there is a much broader portfolio of technologies and resources necessary to meet these challenges," Schaefer says. "I see a greater role for biofuels within any kind of framework, if the framework is going to be serious and ambitious."

The Road Ahead
These are the same words that de Boer used to describe the efforts in Bali. "In terms of the future, Bali has delivered what it needed to deliver, a very ambitious agenda going forward," he said in a closing briefing. "What I'm especially pleased about is the fact that that road forward is ambitious, that it is transparent and that it's flexible."

Although the Bali summit was never intended to set firm greenhouse gas reduction goals, the final text of the Bali agreement did recognize that "deep cuts in global emissions" were needed and that developed nations need to consider "quantified" reductions while developing countries need to consider "mitigation actions." In the end though, the roadmap paves the way for more talks over the next two years starting in April and concluding in Copenhagen in late 2009 where a new accord will be negotiated.

Jessica Ebert is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at jebert@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 738-4962.
 

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