Category Archives: biofuels

Furthest from their Minds: greenhouse gases in Afirca

When sub-Saharan Africa comes up in discussions of climate change, it is almost invariably in the context of adapting to the consequences, such as worsening droughts. That makes sense. The region is responsible for just 7.1% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, despite being home to 14% of its people. Most African countries do not emit much carbon dioxide. Yet there are some notable exceptions.

Start with coal-rich South Africa, which belches out more carbon dioxide than Britain, despite having 10m fewer people and an economy one-eighth the size. Like nearly all of its power plants, many of its vehicles depend on coal, which is used to make the country’s petrol (a technique that helped the old apartheid regime cope with sanctions). A petrochemical complex in the town of Secunda owned by Sasol, a big energy and chemicals firm, is one of the world’s largest localised sources of greenhouse gases.  Zambia is another exception. It burns so much vegetation that its land-use-related emissions surpass those of Brazil, a notorious—and much larger—deforester.

South Africa and Zambia may be extreme examples, but they are not the region’s only big emitters . Nigerian households and businesses rely on dirty diesel generators for 14GW of power, more than the country’s installed capacity of 10GW. Subsistence farmers from Angola to Kenya use slash-and-burn techniques to fertilise fields with ash and to make charcoal, which nearly 1bn Africans use to cook. This, plus the breakneck growth of extractive industries, explains why African forests are disappearing at a rate of 0.5% a year, faster than in South America. Because trees sequester carbon, cutting them counts as emissions in climate accounting.

Other African countries are following South Africa’s lead and embracing coal…A new coal-fired power plant ….Lamu in Kenya is one of many Chinese-backed coal projects in Africa…Africa’s sunny skies and long, blustery coastlines offer near-limitless solar- and wind-energy potential. But what African economies need now are “spinning reserves”, which can respond quickly to volatile demand, says Josh Agenbroad of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think-tank in Colorado. Fossil fuels deliver this; renewables do not…. Several countries are intrigued by hybrid plants where most electricity is generated by solar panels, but diesel provides the spinning reserves…

Excerpts from  Africa and Climate Change: A Burning Issue, Economist,  Apr. 21, 2018, at 41.

Deforestation Tolerance: Amazon

Guianan savanna. Image from wikipedia

Amazon generates approximately half of its own rainfall by recycling moisture 5 to 6 times as airmasses move from the Atlantic across the basin to the west.  From the start, the demonstration of the hydrological cycle of the Amazon raised the question of how much deforestation would be required to cause this hydrolological cycle to degrade to the point of being unable to support rain forest ecosystems.

High levels of evaporation and transpiration that forests produce throughout the year contribute to a wetter atmospheric boundary layer than would be the case with non-forest.This surface-atmosphere coupling is more important where large-scale factors for rainfall formation are weaker, such as in central and eastern Amazonia. Near the Andes, the impact of at least modest deforestation is less dramatic because the general ascending motion of airmasses in this area induces high levels of rainfall in addition to that expected from local evaporation and transpiration.

Where might the tipping point be for deforestation-generated degradation of the hydrological cycle? The very first model to examine this question  showed that at about 40% deforestation, central, southern and eastern Amazonia would experience diminished rainfall and a lengthier dry season, predicting a shift to savanna vegetation to the east.

Moisture from the Amazon is important to rainfall and human wellbeing because it contributes to winter rainfall for parts of the La Plata basin, especially southern Paraguay, southern Brazil, Uruguay and central-eastern Argentina; in other regions, the moisture passes over the area, but does not precipitate out. Although the amount contributing to rainfall in southeastern Brazil is smaller than in other areas, even small amounts can be a welcome addition to urban reservoirs…

In recent decades, new forcing factors have impinged on the hydrological cycle: climate change and widespread use of fire to eliminate felled trees and clear weedy vegetation. Many studies show that in the absence of other contributing factors, 4° Celsius of global warming would be the tipping point to degraded savannas in most of the central, southern, and eastern Amazon. Widespread use of fire leads to drying of surrounding forest and greater vulnerability to fire in the subsequent year.

We believe that negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25% deforestation.

We believe that the sensible course is not only to strictly curb further deforestation, but also to build back a margin of safety against the Amazon tipping point, by reducing the deforested area to less than 20%, for the commonsense reason that there is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it. At the 2015 Paris Conference of the Parties, Brazil committed to 12 million ha of reforestation by 2030. Much or most of this reforestation should be in southern and eastern Amazonia.

Excerpts from Amazon Tipping Point  by Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, Sciences Advances,  Feb. 21, 2018

Supply Chains Live: combating deforestation

366 companies, worth $2.9 trillion, have committed to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains, according to the organization Supply Change. Groups such as the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, the Consumer Goods Forum and Banking Environment Initiative aim to help them achieve these goals.  Around 70 percent of the world’s deforestation still occurs as a result of production of palm oil, soy, beef, cocoa and other agricultural commodities. These are complex supply chains.  A global company like Cargill, for example, sources tropical palm, soy and cocoa from almost 2,000 mills and silos, relying on hundreds of thousands of farmers. Also, many products are traded on spot markets, so supply chains can change on a daily basis. Such scale and complexity make it difficult for global corporations to trace individual suppliers and root out bad actors from supply chains.

Global Forest Watch (GFW), a WRI-convened partnership that uses satellites and algorithms to track tree cover loss in near-real time, is one example. Any individual with a cell phone and internet connection can now check if an area of forest as small as a soccer penalty box was cleared anywhere in the world since 2001. GFW is already working with companies like Mars, Unilever, Cargill and Mondelēz in order to assess deforestation risks in an area of land the size of Mexico.

Other companies are also employing technological advances to track and reduce deforestation. Walmart, Carrefour and McDonalds have been working together with their main beef suppliers to map forests around farms in the Amazon in order to identify risks and implement and monitor changes. Banco do Brasil and Rabobank are mapping the locations of their clients with a mobile-based application in order to comply with local legal requirements and corporate commitments. And Trase, a web tool, publicizes companies’ soy-sourcing areas by analyzing enormous amounts of available datasets, exposing the deforestation risks in those supply chains…

[C]ompanies need to incorporate the issue into their core business strategies by monitoring deforestation consistently – the same way they would track stock markets.

With those challenges in mind, WRI and a partnership of major traders, retailers, food processors, financial institutions and NGOs are building the go-to global decision-support system for monitoring and managing land-related sustainability performance, with a focus on deforestation commitments. Early partners include Bunge, Cargill, Walmart, Carrefour, Mars, Mondelēz, the Inter-American Investment Corporation, the Nature Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance and more.  Using the platform, a company will be able to plot the location of thousands of mills, farms or municipalities; access alerts and dashboards to track issues such as tree cover loss and fires occurring in those areas; and then take action. Similarly, a bank will be able to map the evolution of deforestation risk across its whole portfolio. This is information that investors are increasingly demanding.

Excerpt from Save the Forests? There’s Now an App for That, World Resources Institute, Jan. 18, 2017

All for the Oil: forest fires

Indonesia forest fire. image from wikipedia

…In 2015 a dry spell caused by the El Niño weather pattern made Indonesia’s forest fires  especially severe. Smoke settled over Singapore for months and even reached Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. At least 2m hectares of forest were burned. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds of thousands sickened. For much of October 2015 greenhouse gases released by those fires exceeded the emissions of the entire American economy. The losses over five months of fires amounted to around 2% of the country’s GDP…[The event has labeled  the 2015 Southeast Asian haze]

Between 2001 and 2014, Indonesia lost 18.5m hectares of tree cover—an area more than twice the size of Ireland. In 2014 Indonesia overtook Brazil to become the world’s biggest deforester.

One of the reasons for those forest fires is economic. The country produces well over half the world’s palm oil, a commodity used in cooking and cosmetics, as a food additive and as a biofuel. It accounts for around 4.5% of Indonesia’s GDP, and demand is still rising. To meet it, Indonesian farmers set fires to clear forest and make way for new plantations. Often these forests grow on peatlands, which store carbon from decayed organic matter; in tropical regions these hold up to ten times as much carbon as surface soil. Draining peatlands releases all of that carbon. The peat also becomes a fuel, so it is not just felled trees that are burning but the ground itself.

But politics also plays a part. … The president declared a moratorium on peatland-development licences and called for peat forests to be restored, even as his agriculture minister pointed out that burned peatland can be used for corn and soyabean planting….

Civil-society groups have had some success. At least 188 Indonesian palm-oil companies have made some sort of sustainability pledge, including five large multinational firms that in 2014 signed the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), which commits them to avoiding deforestation and planting oil palms on peatland. Together those five firms account for 80% of Indonesia’s palm-oil exports.All the same, deforestation continues. Perversely, it may even have increased temporarily, as companies cleared as much land as they could before the agreement took effect. Besides, opaque supply chains allow companies to buy palm oil from suppliers not bound by IPOP.

Forests: A world on fire, Economist Special Report on Indonesia, Feb. 27, 2016

What Happened to the Biofuels Revolution?


[B]iofuel schemes—ranging from fermenting starch, to recycling cooking oil, to turning algae into jet fuel—have drawn more than $126 billion in investment since 2003, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), a research outfit… [But]Those biofuels that can best compete commercially are not, in fact, green. Those that are green cannot compete commercially.

The biggest cause of ungreenness is that biofuels made from food crops—or from plants grown on land that might otherwise produce such crops—hurt food supplies. A committee of the European Parliament agreed this week to cap the use of “first-generation” biofuels of this sort. The current European target is for renewables to make up 10% of the energy used in transport by 2020. The new proposal says only seven-tenths of this can come from first-generation fuels. The difference must be made up by more advanced ones based on waste products and other feedstocks that do not impinge on food production. That could mean European demand for advanced biofuels of 14 billion litres by 2020, reckons Claire Curry of BNEF.
Only two such advanced fuels, she thinks, are capable of large-scale production. One is turning waste cooking oil and other fats into diesel—a process for which Europe already has 2 billion litres of capacity. The other involves making ethanol from cellulose by enzymatic hydrolysis. Everything elseis at least four years from commercial production. That includes the much-touted idea of renewable jet fuel.  This is promising on a small scale. South African Airways (SAA), in conjunction with Boeing and other partners, is developing fuel based on the seeds of the tobacco plant—once a big crop in the country, but now fallen on hard times.

Biofuels: Thin harvest, Economist, Apr. 18, 2015, at 72

Deforestation: the mixed picture

slash and burn agriculture

In a new study of the Centre for Global Development (CGD), a Washington think-tank, Jonah Busch and Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon look at 117 cases of deforestation round the world. They find that two of the influences most closely correlated with the loss of forests are population and proximity to cities (the third is proximity to roads). Dramatic falls in fertility in Brazil, China and other well-forested nations therefore help explain why (after a lag) deforestation is slowing, too. Demography even helps account for what is happening in Congo, where fertility is high. Its people are flocking to cities, notably Kinshasa, with the result that the population in more distant, forested areas is thinning out.

Two of the countries that have done most to slow forest decline also have impressive agricultural records: Brazil, which became the biggest food exporter of all tropical countries over the past 20 years; and India, home of the green revolution. Brazil’s agricultural boom took place in the cerrado, the savannah-like region south and east of the Amazon (there is farming in the Amazon, too, but little by comparison). The green revolution took place mostly in India’s north-west and south, whereas its biggest forests are in the east and north.

But if population and agricultural prowess were the whole story, Indonesia, where fertility has fallen and farm output risen, would not be one of the worst failures. Figures published inNature Climate Change in June show that in the past decade it destroyed around 60,000 sq km of primary forests; its deforestation rate overtook Brazil’s in 2011. Policies matter, too—and the political will to implement them.

The central problem facing policymakers is that trees are usually worth more dead than alive; that is, land is worth more as pasture or cropland than as virgin forest. The benefits from forests, such as capturing carbon emissions, cleaning up water supplies and embodying biodiversity, are hard to price….The most successful policies therefore tend to be top-down bans, rather than incentives (though these have been tried, too). India’s national forest policy of 1988 explicitly rejects the idea of trying to make money from stewardship. “The derivation of direct economic benefit”, it says, “must be subordinated to this principal aim” (maintaining the health of the forest). In Brazil 44% of the Amazon is now national park, wildlife reserve or indigenous reserve, where farming is banned; much of that area was added recently. In Costa Rica half the forests are similarly protected. In India a third are managed jointly by local groups and state governments.

Top-down bans require more than just writing a law. Brazil’s regime developed over 15 years and involved tightening up its code on economic activity in forested areas, moratoriums on sales of food grown on cleared land, a new land registry, withholding government-subsidised credit from areas with the worst deforestation and strengthening law enforcement through the public prosecutor’s office. (The most draconian restriction, requiring 80% of any farm in the Amazon to be set aside as a wildlife reserve, is rarely enforced.)

Two developments make bans easier to impose. Cheaper, more detailed satellite imagery shows in real time where the violations are and who may be responsible. Brazil put the data from its system online, enabling green activists to help police the frontier between forest and farmland. Its moratoriums on soyabeans and beef from the Amazon, which require tracing where food is coming from, would not have worked without satellites…

The Forestry Ministry of Indonesia, [on the other hand] is rated the most corrupt among 20 government institutions by Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission in 2012. Some within government are hostile to anti-deforestation schemes, which they see as “foreign”, says Ade Wahyudi of Katadata, an Indonesian firm of analysts. Perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of a single, unified map including all information on land tenure and forest licensing: efforts to create one have been slowed by unco-operative government ministries and difficulties created by overlapping land claims.

Excerpts from Tropical Forests: A Clearing in the Trees, Economist,  Aug. 23, 2014, at 56

Amazon Region Protected Areas: the 215 Million Fund

soybean field

Brazil’s government, the World Wildlife Fund and various partners are expected to unveil an agreement that would establish a $215 million fund for conservation of protected jungle in the Amazon rainforest.  The fund, which seeks to ensure conservation of over 90 protected areas in the Amazon, comes as renewed developmental pressures mount in the region, resulting last year in an uptick in deforestation figures after years of record lows.

Under the terms of the agreement, partners in the fund will make annual contributions to help Brazil meet financing needs for the protected lands, whose combined area totals more than 60 million hectares, or an area 20 percent larger than Spain.  Contributions, partners said, will be contingent upon conditions required of Brazil, including audits of the government body that will administer the fund and continued staffing and financing of government offices required to administer the rainforest areas.

Money from the fund would be used for a range of basic conservation measures, including fences and signs to delineate protected areas and to pay for vehicles used to patrol them…

Brazil’s government through 2012 made large inroads against deforestation, largely through strict environmental enforcement and financial measures that blocked credit for companies and individuals caught doing business with loggers, ranchers, farmers or others known to exploit illegally cleared land.

In recent years, however, the government has made changes to environmental agencies and regulations that critics say make it easier for would-be developers to target protected areas. The government has also altered borders of some parkland to make way for infrastructure projects, including hydroelectric dams on various Amazon tributaries.

Financing for the new fund, expected to pay out over 25 years, was secured from private and public sources including the German government, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, philanthropists and the Amazon Fund, an existing facility financed mostly by the Norwegian government and administered by Brazil’s national development bank.

Together, the forest zones targeted by the fund are known as the Amazon Region Protected Areas, or ARPA, a program established in 2002 to coordinate financing and conservation strategy in the region.

Whereas previous financing for the effort relied on cumulative fundraising efforts, partners this time agreed to an all-or-nothing approach, borrowed from private-sector financing practices, to build momentum toward a target total. The $215 million is the amount calculated as necessary to help the Brazilian government, over the 25 years, become self-sufficient in terms of financing the rainforest areas.


Excerpts from  PAULO PRADA, Donors commit $215 million for Amazon conservation in Brazil, Reuters, May 21, 2014