Taking on the water and biofuels challenge

22 November 2010 | News story

IUCN experts are joining forces with the oil and gas industry to tackle the risks associated with biofuel production, particularly the added stress it can put on dwindling global water supplies.

Biofuels—fuels derived from renewable biological resources such as plant crops—are gaining much public and scientific attention, driven by factors such as high oil prices, the need for energy security, and concern over greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. But they can carry significant environmental and social risks, including impacts on food and water security. Well-planned and managed biofuel production can however contribute to a more sustainable energy future while providing opportunities for conservation farming, climate change adaptation and rural livelihoods.

For several years, IUCN has been involved in efforts to ensure that biofuels are produced sustainably and took part in a recent workshop aimed at developing global standards. Organized by the International Petroleum Industry Environmental and Conservation Association (IPIECA), the meeting, held in Rome, examined the implications of increasing biofuels use for water use and quality. It brought together representatives from the United Nations, academia, civil society, and industry to promote, debate, and assess the implications of biofuel standards for the fuels industry, and improve knowledge sharing and coordination.

Water is a critical input to biofuel production. As with many agricultural crops, water concerns for biofuel production includes the volume needed for feedstock production and processing. But other concerns including the impacts of effluents, such as nutrient-rich agricultural runoff and wastewater from processing, have to be considered. The extent of water impacts from biofuel production depends on feedstock type, geography, irrigation method, farming system, as well as the characteristics of the watersheds within the production and processing zones.

"Water use is an important consideration when developing sustainable biofuels, and should be considered in the context of optimising all natural resource uses so that biodiversity and ecosystem services are valued and protected," says Deviah Aiama, IUCN Bioenergy Programme Officer.

The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive requires biofuel producers to report on excessive water usage in regions of water scarcity. Existing voluntary certification schemes for sustainable biofuels appear to address water use and quality issues appropriately, however practical experiences of the implications for water quantity and quality remain to be seen. IUCN is involved in water and biofuel issues through its participation in the multi-stakeholder Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels which is developing a certification system for biofuels sustainability standards, including for water use.

IUCN’s Water Programme presented its experiences in engaging local communities and creating the background for good governance from an integrated water resource management perspective.

Competing priorities and uncertainties make water allocation decisions a complex matter. With no shared commitment or legitimacy of decisions over water, people are less likely to comply and the risk of water shortages increases, including for biofuels producers,” explained Stefano Barchiesi, IUCN Water Programme Project Officer while presenting the newest publication from IUCN’s Water and Nature Initiative 'Negotiate, Reaching Agreements over Water'.

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