Thursday, February 28, 2008

Jatropha - a Better Biofuel Option?

While many write of doom and gloom about biofuel crops, and that they are actually negative in terms of carbon balance [ see post below], interest is growing [pardon the pun] in jatropha, as a oil source and biofuel.

Jatropha is NOT a food crop, so it is somewhat different to many other options. In fact more of a weed and potential medicinal species in many tropical countries.

The Indian government has been pushing to increase the area of this species, with a focus on small, village level developments, and local processing using modest presssing or extraction equipment. That is probably a great thing, eliminating the need for cash outlays to purchase expensive imported diesel. The jatropha oil, often with minimum further processing can be used in small diesel engines, for lighting, electricity, small workshop and industrial power and machinery operation.

Others are pushing the use on better land, mainly in Africa, and to a lesser extent in India. Sometimes this land is currently idle or damaged in some way eg landmines and in these cases a larger agro-industrial approach is being developed. In Africa, in Mali, a project has been in various phases since around 1993, with generally good results. And the Indian scientists have been developing superior genetic materials with superior establishment and performance.

In Australia jatropha has a stigma as a weed, and development will be, and is, quite muted. Are we missing out on this apparent growth and development? Maybe not, as the Australian owned biofuels plant in Singapore has signed up to buy jatropha oil as a biofuel feedstock.

Will we see weed fueled buses in Darwin?

There are some excellent online resources. - a bit dated but ok for a start point

Like all energy crop projects over the past 25 - 30 years there is a lot of hype with some substance. But with oil now hovering around $100 US per barrel, has the time come to seriously push harder for use of biofuel options, especially those capable of being grown in marginal areas where food crops are not possible?

BUT....jatropha seems to have a significant drawback that is rarely discussed. Seed harvest currently seems to rely on cheap highly intensive labour. Hardly a good option for the industrialised countries. However, one item in abundance in many developing regions IS the supply of labour. Maybe, just maybe, it will be hand harvested while superior semi- mechanised options are developed. They will be needed if it is to expand.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Biofuels Worsen the Carbon Balance and Do Nothing for Climate Change

Growing crops to make biofuels results in vast amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere and does nothing to stop climate change or global warming, according to the first thorough scientific audit of a biofuel's carbon budget.

Scientists have produced damning evidence to suggest that biofuels could be one of the biggest environmental con-tricks because they actually make global warming worse by adding to the man-made emissions of carbon dioxide that they are supposed to curb.

Two separate studies published in the journal Science show that a range of biofuel crops now being grown to produce "green" alternatives to oil-based fossil fuels release far more carbon dioxide into the air than can be absorbed by the growing plants. The scientists found that, in the case of some crops, it would take several centuries of growing them to pay off the "carbon debt" caused by their initial cultivation. Those environmental costs do not take into account any extra destruction to the environment, for instance the loss of biodiversity caused by clearing tracts of pristine rainforest.

"All the biofuels we use now cause habitat destruction, either directly or indirectly. Global agriculture is already producing food for six billion people. Producing food-based biofuel, too, will require that still more land be converted to agriculture," said Joe Fargioine of the US Nature Conservancy who was the lead scientist in one of the studies.

The scientists carried out the sort of analysis that has been missing in the rush to grow biofuels, encouraged by policies in the United States and Europe where proponents have been keen to extol biofuels' virtues as a green alternative to the fossil fuels used for transport.

Both studies looked at how much carbon dioxide is released when a piece of land is converted into a biofuel crop. They found that when peat lands in Indonesia are converted into palm-oil plantations, for instance, it would take 423 years to pay off the carbon debt.

The next worse case was when forested land in the Amazon is cut down to convert into soybean fields. The scientists found that it would take 319 years of making biodiesel from the soybeans to pay of the carbon debt caused by chopping down the trees in the first place.

Such conversions of land to grow corn (maize) and sugarcane for biodiesel, or palm oil and soybean for bioethanol, release between 17 and 420 times more carbon than the annual savings from replacing fossil fuels, the scientists calculated.

"This research examines the conversion of land for biofuels and asks the question 'is it worth it?' Does the carbon you lose by converting forests, grasslands and peat lands outweigh the carbon you 'save' by using biofuels instead of fossil fuels?" Dr Fargione said. "And surprisingly the answer is 'no'. These natural areas store a lot of carbon, so converting them to croplands results in tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere," he said.

The demand for biofuels is destroying the environment in other ways. American farmers for instance used to rotate between soybean and corn crops but the demand for biofuel has meant that they are growing corn only. As a result, Brazilian farmers are cutting down forests to grow soybean to meet the shortfall in production.

"In finding solutions to climate change, we must ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease," said Jimmie Powell, a member of the scientific team at the Nature Conservancy. "We cannot afford to ignore the consequences of converting land for biofuels. Doing so means we might unintentionally promote fuel alternatives that are worse than the fossil fuels they are designed to replace. These findings should be incorporated into carbon emission policy going forward," Dr Powell said.

The European Union is already having second thoughts about its policy aimed at stimulating the production of biofuel. Stavros Dimas, the EU environment commissioner, admitted last month that the EU did not foresee the scale of the environmental problems raised by Europe's target of deriving 10 per cent of its transport fuel from plant material.

Professor John Pickett, chair of the recent study on biofuels commissioned by the Royal Society, said that although biofuels may play an important role in cutting greenhouse gases from transport, it is important to remember that one biofuel is not the same as another."The greenhouse gas savings that a biofuel can provide are dependent on how crops are grown and converted and how the fuel is used," Professor Pickett said. "Given that biofuels are already entering global markets, it will be vital to apply carbon certification and sustainability criteria to the assessment of biofuels to promote those that are good for people and the environment. This must happen at an international level so that we do not just transfer any potentially negative effects of these fuels from one place to another."

Professor Stephen Polasky of the University of Minnesota, an author of one of the studies published in Science, said that the incentives currently employed to encourage farmers to grow crops for biofuels do not take into account the carbon budget of the crop. "We don't have the proper incentives in place because landowners are rewarded for producing palm oil and other products but not rewarded for carbon management. This creates incentives for excessive land clearing and can result in large increases in carbon emissions," Professor Polasky said. is the link to one Polasky article, and he has an excellent presentation on biofuel economics on line as well.

These studies apparently point to a very different dynamic in the use of biofuels. We do not seem to be able to have it both ways it seems with current systems. But the next generation of biofuel production systems that mostly use lignocellulosic products [commonly waste biomass] which are converted microbiologically are generally a very different proposition with the economics apparently positive. But whether the carbon balance is positive or negative is currently still being debated. At least the initial products used are not being diverted from primarily food production.

In Australia the rush to use biofuels has not been as great as elsewhere, mainly due to supply constraints, and the paucity of production plants.

[partially sourced from original sources, and others]

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Crisis in the Drylands

[ partially sourced from Scientific American Magazine - January 17, 2008, original text written by Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University, and added to by the author of the blog]

Sound economic solutions, not military ones, offer the most reliable route to peace for undeveloped nations.

The vast region of deserts, grasslands and sparse wood­lands that stretches across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia is by far the most crisis-ridden part of the planet.

With the exception of a few highly affluent states in the Persian Gulf, these dryland countries face severe and intensifying challenges, including frequent and deadly droughts, encroaching deserts, burgeoning populations and extreme poverty. The region scores at the very bottom of the United Nations’s Index of Human Development, which ranks countries according to their incomes, life expectancy and educational attainments.

As a result of these desperate conditions, the dryland countries are host to a disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts. Look closely at the violence in Afghanistan, Chad, Ethiopia, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan—one finds tribal and often pastoralist communities struggling to survive deepening ecological crises. Water scarcity, in particular, has been a source of territorial conflict when traditional systems of land management fail in the face of rising populations and temperatures and declining rainfall.

Washington looks at many of these clashes and erroneously sees Islamist ideology at the core.

US political leaders fail to realize that other Islamic populations are far more stable economically, politically and socially—and that the root of the crisis in the dryland countries is not Islam but extreme poverty and environmental stress.

The Washington mind-set also prefers military approaches to developmental ones. The U.S. has supported the Ethiopian army in a military incursion into Somalia. It has pushed for military forces to stop the violence in Darfur. It has armed the clans in the deserts of western Iraq and now proposes to arm pastoralist clans in Pakistan along the Afghan border.

The trouble with the military approach is that it is extremely expensive and yet addresses none of the underlying problems. Indeed, the U.S. weapons provided to local clans often end up getting turned on the U.S. itself at a later date. Tellingly, one of the greatest obstacles to posting the proposed peacekeeping troops to Darfur is the lack of a water supply for them. Given the difficulty of finding water for those 26,000 soldiers, it becomes easier to understand the severity of the ongoing and unsolved water crisis facing the five million to seven million residents of Darfur.

Fortunately, much better solutions exist once the focus is put squarely on nurturing sustainable development. Today many proven techniques for “rainwater harvesting” can collect and store rain for later use by people, livestock and crops. In some areas, boreholes that tap underground aquifers can augment water availability; in others, rivers and seasonal surface runoff can be used for irrigation.

Such solutions may cost hundreds of dollars per household, spread out over a few years. This outlay is far too much for the impoverished households to afford but far less than the costs to societies of conflicts and military interventions. The same is true for other low-cost interventions to fight diseases, provide schooling for children and ensure basic nutrition.

To end the poverty trap, pastoralists can increase the productivity of livestock through improved breeds, veterinary care and scientific management of fodder. Often pastoralists can multiply their incomes by selling whole animals, meat products, processed goods (such as leather) and dairy products. The wealthy states of the Middle East are a potentially lucrative nearby market for the livestock industries of Africa and Central Asia.

To build this export market, pastoralist economies will need help with all-weather roads, storage facilities, cell phone coverage [skipping fixed lines usually], power, veterinary care and technical advice, to mention just a few of the key investments. With crucial support and active engagement of the private sector, however, impoverished dryland communities will be able to take advantage of transformative communications technologies and even gain access to capital from abroad. New trends in microfinancing are enhancing this capital transfer even NOW!

Today’s dryland crises in Africa and Central Asia affect the entire world. The U.S. should rethink its overemphasis on military approaches, and Europe should honor its unmet commitments of aid to this region, but other nations—including the wealthy countries of the Middle East and new donors such as India and China—can also help turn the tide.

The only reliable way to peace in the vast and troubled drylands will be through sustainable development.

Australia has a significant contribution to assist this process, based on the knowledge, skills and attitudes developed by our farmers, graziers and scientists in coping with the vicissitudes of the Australian climate, information often directly transferable to others. And no, we will not do ourselves out of trade or options. In fact increased options are lilkely to develop.

Several commentators on this original article in Scientific American were critical - very critical, but a few, probably those with direct experience in running development programs, responded quite positively.

These thoughts are worth contemplating.....deeply.

One has to ask, who thinks of Norman Borlaug as a great scientist? Who you ask? Yes, Norman Borlaug, credited with the first Green Revolution, improving rice, wheat and barley, and bringing adequate food to many developing countries. Yet development is painful and slow still, with the issues identified by Sachs as crucial. Indian farmers, large and small are enthusiastically embracing GM [GE] cotton, with fantastic results [see this blog too]. Combine new yield aspects and safe living environments and we can make things better.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Scientists Call For Urgent Research Into 'Real' Impacts Of Invasive Species

As well as drawing attention to the rising cost of invasive species on a global scale —estimated at US$1.4 trillion in damage — GISP stresses that too much emphasis has been placed on the problems faced by the agricultural sector in developed countries rather than in developing countries and on the “full range of environmental, social and economic costs.” The report also emphasises that due to the lack of knowledge and research available on the severity of individual pests and the options for best controlling them, policy makers are being left in the dark.

Dennis Rangi, Chair of GISP says: “With the increase in global trade, invasive species are gaining more and more prominence around the world. However the level of awareness amongst decision-makers, and in particular those in developing countries is still relatively low.“

He goes on to say that to enable informed policy making on the prevention, eradication and control of invasive species, it is critical that studies are expanded to show the extent of the problem and in particular the impact that these weeds, pests and diseases have on people’s lives. He says “numbers are not enough; decision makers need to know the tangible effects invasive species are having on the individual farmers
and their crops.”

To help address the issues, GISP and one of its lead organisations, CABI, has undertaken a number of case studies of problem invasive species in Africa — a country with a current lack of analysis. As well as highlighting the overall economic damage to the affected countries, the studies show the estimated monetary loss to farmers, the cost of prevention and control and the potential consequences if action is not taken.

CABI is world-renowned for its extensive work in working with countries to help prevent and control invasive species. As well as advising on how to control invasive weeds and pests using a complementary array of pest management approaches, CABI specialises in natural control methods. This focuses on finding and developing natural enemies from the species’ country of origin and introducing them to the environment where it has invaded. One example is the Rastrococcus mealybug which devastated mangoes in West Africa. CABI introduced a highly specific wasp from Asia, which proved extremely effective in controlling the mealybug. Natural control methods for other weed species such as Mikania micrantha and Water Hyacinth have also been successfully used.
Among GISP’s case studies is the Triffid weed (Chromolaena odorata), a plant native to the Americas which has severely impacted natural areas in Africa and reduces crop productivity in agriculture
and grazing. In Ghana the study showed that the weed occupies 59% of all arable lands, and in Ubombo, South Africa it greatly reduces the grazing capacity of animals. Effective control would see an increase in production by 34% and a gain of US$25.6 per hectare for each farmer.

Another example is the Larger Grain Borer which has been recorded in over 18 African countries. The Borer is a major pest of staple food in Africa, especially farm-stored maize and cassava. By studying the Borer, GISP reported that “its impact is greatest in rural, small-holder farming systems where yield losses range from 23-60%.”

Sarah Simons, Global Director of Invasives Species at CABI concludes: “By concentrating on a number of specific problem weeds in Africa, we are able to identify the effects they have on a country’s overall economy and also on the farmers and their families. This sort of information is essential if governments are to understand the extent of the problem and develop effective strategies to tackle them.
The report ”Economic Impacts of Invasive Alien Species: A Global Problem with Local Consequences" is authored by the Global Invasives Species Programme. To read the report in full please go to

CABI works with other GISP partners (IUCN and TNC) to extend this research from impacts on agricultural systems to invasions of natural and wild ecosystems and the effects they have on conservation and peoples’ livelihoods – especially in developing countries.

Australia has its share of invasive species - insects, weeds, fish and so on. But at least we have the resources and mostly the finances to attack the problems.

[partially sourced from CABI media report]