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News and Media
Workers harvesting sugar cane by hand in Mauritius. Photo: Vikram Seebaluck, University of Mauritius
SEI’s Francis X. Johnson, who explores this topic in an upcoming book that was the focus of a side-event at COP17, shares some of the insights gathered so far.
Growing concerns about the impacts of climate change and dependence on fossil fuels have intensified interest in bioenergy from sugar cane and other crops, highlighting important links between energy, environment and development goals.
The upcoming book Bioenergy for Sustainable Development and International Competitiveness: The Role of Sugar Cane in Africa, edited by SEI senior research fellow Francis X. Johnson and University of Mauritius researcher Vikram Seebaluck, describes how sugar cane could offer valuable avenues for sustainable development. Johnson and several co-authors shared their findings at a COP17 side-event on 6 December.
Q: What makes bioenergy such an attractive option for developing countries?
A: When done well, bioenergy in the less densely populated developing countries (especially in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa) allows them to exploit plentiful sunshine and land and cheap labour while also improving energy security (independence), stimulating agricultural and rural development, taking advantage of carbon finance, and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
Q: How does sugar cane compare with other fuel crops such as jatropha, palm oil, maize?
A: Sugar cane is the only biofuel that is well-proven to be both economically competitive with oil, and environmentally beneficial in terms of emissions reductions. Maize for ethanol is a bad idea because it is a staple food and does not have the high energy efficiency of sugar cane.
Jatropha is small-scale and manually harvested, whereas sugar cane requires large-scale processing and often large-scale agriculture. Palm oil is very efficient in energy terms, but it grows in humid areas where rainforests exist. Sugar cane and other crops will not grow in such humid regions, so they pose no risk to rainforests.
Q: At the side-event, you spoke about alternative sugar cane-bioenergy complexes. What are these? A: Sugar cane is used to make sugar and ethanol, but it also provides fibrous residue (bagasse) that is used to generate heat and electricity. It is also possible to produce biogas, specialised chemicals, and various bio-based materials that can replace non-renewable materials, such as bio-plastics, reducing emissions even further.
Markets for different subsets of these products will develop in different locations, and some regions have special characteristics that favour specific approaches. For example, in South Africa, where the electricity comes from coal, if you produce power from bagasse, the emissions savings increase by 50%, with relatively little added cost.
Q: What can Brazil teach Africa about sugar cane?
A: Sugar cane is the best biofuel in energy balance, GHG reduction, and in economics, but not in water use. In Brazil, they have plenty of water, but African countries will have to be more careful. We do not recommend irrigation because it can be wasteful, though in some areas, precision irrigation could actually result in lower water use if the evaporation is reduced, especially through breeding of new varieties. Brazil has hundreds of varieties, each specialised to a micro-climate might cover just 25 or 50,000 hectares. They use about 9 million hectares altogether.
Q: Which African countries are focusing on sugar cane for energy?
A: The first were Malawi and Zimbabwe. Malawi has suffered from too small scale, and thus higher costs, but because they are landlocked and pay even higher prices for oil, it still makes sense. Zimbabwe had political turmoil. Mozambique probably has the best chance to follow the Brazilian model – and they are linked by common language. Mozambique has the largest potential and has long coastline for trade.
Q: Is sugar cane for bioenergy a good option for Africa in general? How big is the potential?
A: We estimate the rain-fed potential in southern Africa at about 12 million hectares. If you included other parts of Africa, it would be several times that, depending on assumptions. This means that sub-Saharan Africa has a potential similar to Brazil or somewhat greater, with the caveat that they have to be more careful about water.
Sugar cane is not a solution that works for every region and/or country, but because many African nations have excellent agricultural conditions, the potential is there if they want it. And it creates the option for a greener economy, since it brings a lot of jobs. Agro-energy is between 50 and 150 times as labour-intensive as fossil fuels (higher if you harvest manually, lower if you mechanise).
Q: In that context, is sugar cane a good option for sustainable development?
A: Neither sugar cane nor bioenergy in general are some kind of silver bullet – there is no silver bullet. Economic growth and development will always require more land and water if you also have increasing population, and you will in turn get more GHGs.
There is good science being done that argues against biofuels, and that is valuable, because you have to show the limitations as well as the advantages. Others are seem to want a perfect solution, or they think that solar photovoltaics will solve everything. But solar PV costs about 5-10 times more and only provides electricity, where biomass can provide heat, electricity, gaseous fuels, liquid fuels, hydrogen, and bio-materials. And this view ignores the poverty and lack of infrastructure in Least Developed Countries, which can’t simply jump to PVs and wind power.
Q: Your book last year, Food versus Fuel, highlighted concerns about bioenergy competing with food production. Is there a consensus that we should not have this competition?
A: Actually, some competition with food is okay, because it can stimulate more efficient agricultural production methods and the pursuit of multiple products (i.e. food and fuel and fibre and animal feed, not one or the other). The competition is natural and is not the problem – it is food insecurity that is the problem, and there are many causes for this, of which competition with biofuels is but one. As oil prices rise and it becomes scarcer, there is no choice but to accept biofuels in LDCs, because it will be many decades before they have alternatives such as electric vehicles. Therefore it is important for developing countries to choose crops and biofuels that are both cost-effective and environmentally sustainable.
Learn more about Bioenergy for Sustainable Development and International Competitiveness: The Role of Sugar Cane in Africa (external link to Routledge)
Photos provided by Vikram Seebaluck, University of Mauritius.