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UN waffles furiously on biofuels

Bureaucrats wedge themselves on well-oiled fence

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The United Nations has produced a comprehensive report into the future of biofuels which, despite being the result of much research and consultation with all 30 of its agencies, doesn't come to a conclusion about whether biofuels will be a good thing or not.

A few sample quotes from the 64-page document (pdf):

"Critical natural systems could either be greatly enhanced or further degraded by expanded modern bioenergy production.

"Expanded bioenergy use could affect household and national food security in positive or negative ways, depending on the situation."

"Depending on the type of crop grown, what it is replacing, and the methods of cultivation...bioenergy can have negative or positive effects.

"Assuming oil prices remain high and major breakthroughs in reducing production costs occur, it may even be possible to achieve negative CO2-abatement costs."

Of course, assuming that diplomatic salaries and privileges remain respectable and major breakthroughs in bureaucratic culture occur, reports like this may become much more useful. But let's not be cynical:

"Over-generalising about the future of of bioenergy would be both futile and disrespectful to readers, in particular decision-makers," the international brains remind us.

Even so, they do over-generalise a little: "Policy changes must be implemented thoughtfully, to avoid problems," they say.

It's possible that some decision-makers could find advice like this a bit futile - even disrespectful.

All that said, the UN thinkers do draw a very broad-brush picture of the biofuel world, stating a few widely-accepted truths.

They say that the best way to reduce environmental damage using present biofuel tech is to employ the energy in static combined-heat-and-power (CHP) systems, not liquid transport fuels.

They warn that using food crops like maize for biofuels risks starving the world's poor as rich Westerners could be willing to pay more for vehicle fuel than Third-Worlders can afford for their groceries.

The spectre is raised of further deforestation and elimination of virgin habitats in developing nations as the human race seeks to expand its energy supply by growing energy crops.

It's not all gloom, though. Biofuel could advance women's liberation, at least. Sort of.

"Women who have access to modern fuels face a lighter cooking burden, which frees up more time to pursue educational, social and economic opportunities," according to the UN. "They are also more likely to have the chance to partake in wider networks...through enhanced access to radio, television, and other communications technologies."

There you have it, ladies. Biofuels can make your cooking tasks lighter, letting you spend more time watching the telly. Remember to flame the UN, not the Reg!

The UN lads also made a statement which could stir up controversy among more conventional greens, whose plans for the future often envisage the human race striving to use less energy overall than it does now.

"No country in modern times has substantially reduced poverty in the absence of massive increases in energy use," says the UN. "Countries with higher incomes and higher human development indexes also tend to be those with higher energy consumption...basic energy services for cooking and heating, lighting, communication, water pumping, and food processing are particularly important."

Or to put it another way, if the world's swarming poor folk are ever going to live like wealthy Westerners, we're going to be using a lot more energy, not less. The UN isn't alone in wondering if that can actually happen - and if so, where all the juice is going to come from. ®

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