Press Releases October 2010 - Nagoya 2010: Weighing up the risks and benefits of biofuels development - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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Nagoya 2010: Weighing up the risks and benefits of biofuels development

Water, land use change and invasive species are key factors

that must be addressed alongside greenhouse gas cuts

Nagoya, Japan, 25 October 2010 - Water could determine the degree to which bioenergy can contribute to combating climate change by reducing the world's reliance on fossil fuels, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said in an Issue Paper presented at the Convention on Biodiversity meeting (CBD COP10) in Nagoya, Japan, today.

Increasing water demand for biofuels production in areas where water is already scarce could increase environmental and social pressures, the paper entitled Water and Bioenergy, stated.

Bioenergy development can have an impact on biodiversity on a number of levels: by changing land-use, introducing invasive species for use in biofuel production, overusing water and pushing agricultural production into areas with high conservation value (indirect land use change). But there can be beneficial impacts as well: for instance, replacement of firewood use can decrease deforestation.

A joined-up approach to bioenergy development, one that balances greenhouse gas emissions with impacts on biodiversity, water and food security, is needed. Proper planning and management will be essential at the national level, as well as in individual projects.

"There is no doubt that we need to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels and move to cleaner, more environmentally friendly options, but we need to make sure we are not creating more problems than we solve" said Achim Steiner, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and UNEP Executive Director.

"Biofuel production has risks and opportunities. We need to examine all the risks, so that we can take full advantage of the opportunities, for emissions cuts, for new green jobs, and for raising the standards of living for some of the world's poorest communities," he added.

UNEP spells out some of those considerations in four issues papers circulated today, which compliment a landmark report-Accessing Biofuels- launched last year by the UNEP-hosted International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.

In Water and Bioenergy, the second in the bioenergy paper series, UNEP cites research which shows that two per cent, or 44 km3, of the global water withdrawals for irrigation are being used for bioenergy production.

But if current bioenergy standards and targets were fully implemented, a further 180km3 of irrigation water would be needed, creating additional pressure on water resources and potentially impacting on food production and water supplies, especially in those areas already experiencing water stress.

As the water footprint of bioenergy can be up to 400 times greater than that of traditional fossil fuels, the greatest challenges will be to determine how to meet future bioenergy demand without overexploiting or damaging water resources, and how to better manage bioenergy supply chains to reduce the pressure on water use and minimize impacts on water quality.

So important are the links between water and biofuel production that the UNEP is preparing a report

which for the first time examines in depth the links between biofuel production and water availability, use and quality. The report, called Zoom on the Bioenergy and Water Nexus, draws on the work of more than 40 experts and will be released early next year.

Measures that help reduce the impact of bioenergy on water include:

  • Matching bioenergy feedstocks with locally available water resources, favoring those that require less irrigation and added agrochemicals, which through run-off can contaminate water supplies.

  • Using sustainable agricultural techniques and technologies to minimize water use, and encouraging the switch to sustainable agriculture.

  • Conducting life-cycle analyses of total water use and water quality of biofuels.

  • Fostering market mechanisms that encourage sustainable water use and reduce potentially harmful effluents and take into account regional needs and contexts.

In another issues paper circulated today, Gain or Pain? Biofuels and Invasive Species, UNEP, UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) say that while many of the currently available biofuels are produced from food crops that have been grown for centuries, some of the plant species being considered for advanced biofuels are potentially invasive.

The very qualities that make these plants ideal for biofuels - fast growth, ability to outperform local vegetation, abundant seed production, tolerance of and adaptability to a range of soil and climatic conditions, resistance to pests and diseases, a lack of predators - mean they could become invasive in a given landscape.

Invasive species can do serious damage to the environment, local livelihoods and economies. Careful risk assessment that weighs up the likelihood of impacts on biodiversity, and measures preventing spread are needed.

So far, in the rush to pursue the benefits of biofuels, the risk of invasive species being introduced for biofuels production has received too little attention.

The paper highlights the need for more research and sharing of information about these plants, and methods to assess the likelihood to which invasiveness could materialize.

In Beyond the Talk: Engaging Stakeholders in Bioenergy Development, UNEP examines the critical link between biodiversity and the livelihoods of communities around the world, building on a recent Decision Support Tool prepared with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) under the framework of UN Energy, a mechanism to coordinate the work on sustainable energy.

As bioenergy projects creep into the backyards of these communities, they need to be properly engaged and communicated with to ensure that these practices are not harmful to them, that land tenure is secured, and that local biodiversity providing ecosystem services is maintained.

And in Land Use, Land Use Change and Bioenergy, UNEP points to global estimate that, on current trends and with current technologies, bioenergy could compromise up to 36 per cent of arable land by 2030. This could have a serious impact on biodiversity.

The challenge is to create processes and methodologies that help designate areas that are suitable and available for bioenergy development,and those where special care needs to be applied. Comprehensive land-use planning and management systems need to be enacted.

For further information please contact:

Nick Nuttall, Spokesperson/Head of Media UNEP, Mobile in Japan, +81 80 3660 1001 and Roaming: +41 7959 65737, Email:

Moira O'Brien-Malone, Head, DTIE Communications, UNEP Paris, Tel: +33 1 44 37 76 12 or +33 6 82 26 9373 or


For more information, and to download the issues papers, please go to:

Accessing Biofuels


Created in 1972, UNEP represents the United Nations' environmental conscience. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, its mission is to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations. UNEP's Division of Technology, Industry and Economics - based in Paris - helps governments, local authorities and decision-makers in business and industry to develop and implement policies and practices focusing on sustainable development. The Division leads UNEP's work in the areas of climate change, resource efficiency, and harmful substances and hazardous waste.

Water could determine the degree to which bioenergy can contribute to combating climate change by reducing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels



Further Resources

Assessing Biofuels

Download Issues Papers


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