We live in a world of global connections in which our actions in one part of the planet can have a far-reaching ecological impact. This could be through use of resources and production of pollutants, or as a result of policy decisions that may have both direct and indirect effects. Recognition of global ecology has resulted in new ways of looking at things. For example, we now have the concept of ‘food miles’ which measures the distance travelled by agricultural produce (Iles, 2005) such as the journey to London supermarkets for carrots from South Africa (5100 miles) or beans from Kenya (3600 miles). Similarly, ecotourism from developed to developing countries can be represented in terms of an ‘ecological footprint’ with the remarkable finding that 80% of 2 week holidays generate an ecological footprint greater than the average annual per capita footprint in low income countries (Hunter & Shaw, 2005). These activities affect African ecology primarily through greenhouse gas pollutants contributing to global warming, so perhaps an ecologically minded shopper or holiday maker would prefer to buy local produce and take vacations near to home. But should consumers’ decisions be influenced by food miles or ecological footprints? Export agriculture and tourism are important sources of revenue for African countries and there would be substantial adverse economic effects if they were curtailed on ecological grounds. Moreover, it is difficult to put the genie of cheap air travel back into its bottle, particularly when it is so important for linking the emerging economies of Africa with important markets in distant developed countries. An alternative is to look for technical solutions that will lower fossil fuel carbon emissions and so decrease greenhouse gas pollution. A possibility that is now being taken very seriously is the use of biofuel, either directly in flight operations (Wardle, 2003) or indirectly by offsetting aircraft emissions by using biofuels for general transport use.

Biofuels are derived from crops and harness the ability of plants to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into complex organic molecules through photosynthesis. These molecules can then be used for fuel. The concept is not new; Brazil has successfully used bioethanol derived from sugar as a vehicle fuel supplement for many years (Goldemberg et al., 2004). But advances in biorefinery technology for the production of biodiesel and implementation of biofuel policy are opening the potential for much wider biofuel use (Ragauskas et al., 2006). For example, in 2003 the European Union Parliament passed a biofuels directive (European Commission, 2003) that set targets for use of biofuels in the European transport fuel market of 2% by the end of 2005 and 5.75% by the end of 2010. Although these targets have not been met (European Commission, 2007) there is renewed impetus by European policy makers to implement fully, and even go beyond the biofuel directive targets. Policy makers regard biofuels as providing a suite of dividends. First, they help Europe meet its Kyoto obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using fuels from renewable sources instead of mineral oil. Secondly, the main oil reserves are located in geopolitically unstable areas of the planet, as a costly war in Iraq has demonstrated, and so politicians consider it prudent to develop alternative sources of fuel. Moreover, the rapidly industrializing economies of India and China, which are not constrained by Kyoto limits, have become major players in the oil market and can exert control outside the direct European sphere of interest. Thirdly, Bulgaria and Romania have recently joined the European Union. Underdeveloped, but with abundant agricultural land, a subsidized market for biofuels derived from agricultural crops could help stimulate their economies and so enhance European harmonization. Fourthly, and this is where Africa has a major part to play, the European biofuels market will be huge and so has the potential to provide a big lift to African agriculture. Other oil-dependent countries are also making commitments to biofuels. The United States of America, although it has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, passed a federal 551 page Energy Policy Act in 2005, which includes support for biofuels amongst many other provisions and a number of individual states have renewable fuel standards or other legislation promoting biofuel use.

Although a shift to biofuel sounds attractive, and indeed may be imperative given the increasing evidence that global warming is induced by human activity (IPCC, 2007), there are some problems. Potentially, the biofuels market could compete with the food market causing an increase in the costs of basic foodstuffs. This applies in particular to the use of maize or sugar for production of bioethanol and oil palm or soya for biodiesel. However, some potential biofuel feedstocks, such as Jatropha, grow in semi-arid conditions and so can be grown on lands not suitable for high yield agriculture, although it could displace food crops in areas such as the Sahel. Then there is concern that expansion of biofuel crops could result in loss of biodiversity. For example oil palm and soya farms could replace tropical rainforest; sugar-cane grows in wetlands and Jatropha on land often used by pastoralists under traditional systems that are compatible with maintaining local fauna and flora. Finally, the biofuels market will increase the area of land under intensive agriculture providing impetus for the shift from communal to privately owned land and elite capture of key ecological resources such as areas of fertile soil or water sources.

Thus, the case of biofuels is singularly problematic in that it can provide both ecological benefits and harm. There is the potential to apply new technologies to reduce our addiction to mineral oil with a wide range of benefits and the chance for Africa to become a major biofuel producer exporting to oil-hungry nations. Should the possible negative environmental effects stand in the way of a major revolution in energy supply? World trade agreements are quite clear on this sort of issue. Much to the chagrin of environmentalists, under the World Trade Organization General Agreement on Trade and Tariff there is a distinction between product and process. Import restrictions can only be placed on a product if it is itself a potential danger to health, such as foods carrying disease or dangerous appliances. The process by which the product is grown or created cannot be used as the basis for preventing or taxing imports. Thus it is not possible to put trade restrictions on products which are produced unsustainably, although it is possible to use marketing techniques such as certification of timber, organic vegetables and fair-trade goods. So biofuels produced in Africa and sold in Europe could be grown on land alienated from traditional owners or in plantations carved out of pristine rainforest and it would be impossible to use trade-restrictions to prevent importation. Once biofuels are at the pumps, we could be offered consumer choice for ecologically and socially sustainable fuels. However, we certainly do not have that choice on fuels derived from oil – there is not a pump for fuel from Angola, another for Nigeria and a third for Iraq – enabling selection of the political regime we top our car up from, so it seems unlikely we will have a similar option for biofuels. The key to ecologically sound production of biofuels will be in environmental impact assessment, which is increasingly a national legal requirement in Africa and the prerequisite for many external investment funds during planning and development of biofuel projects.

Nonetheless, environmental organizations have expressed concerns over increased biofuel use. A Google search with the keywords ‘biofuels environment’ throws up headlines such as: ‘unsustainable biofuels threaten the environment’, ‘biofuels: green energy or grim reaper?’, ‘palm oil: the biofuel of the future driving an ecological disaster now’. Biofuels will reduce our dependence on oil and lessen greenhouse gas pollution thereby reducing or offsetting the carbon footprint from activities such as the supply of African vegetables to London supermarkets and long-haul tourism, which are the economic mainstay of some African countries and a key way of capturing global values placed on Africa's unique natural resources. However, extensive biofuel production will also intensify agriculture in Africa with land use change and the consequent ecological and social impacts. Whether or not these are negative will be determined by careful initial planning and appropriate use of environmental impact assessments. Vocal critics of biofuel production in developing countries should perhaps consider their own carbon dependency. If they don't have an ecological footprint similar to the average African, then perhaps they should be looking to biofuels from Africa to mitigate their energy intensive lifestyles.

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[  The paper in this issue by Stoner et al. reports that at the end of a decade spanning the late 1980s to early 2000s, hartebeest declined in three of the six large ecosystems where they were surveyed (Photo by T.M. Caro) ]


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  2. References
  • European Commission. (2003) European Biofuels Directive 2003/30/EC. Commission of the European Communities, Brussels.
  • European Commission. (2007) Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament – Biofuels Progress Report: Report on the Progress Made in the Use of Biofuels and Other Renewable Fuels in the Member States of the European Union. Commission of the European Communities, Brussels.
  • Goldemberg, J., Coelho, S.T., Nastri, P.M. & Lucon, O. (2004) Ethanol learning curve – the Brazilian experience. Biomass Bioenergy 26, 301304.
  • Hunter, C. & Shaw, J. (2005) Applying the ecological footprint to ecotourism scenarios. Environ. Conserv. 32, 294304.
  • Iles, A. (2005) Learning in sustainable agriculture: food miles and missing objects. Environ. Values 14, 163183.
  • IPCC. (2007) Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Summary for Policy Makers. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Paris.
  • Ragauskas, A.J., Williams, C.K., Davison, B.H., Britovse, G., Cairney, J., Eckert, C.A., Frederick, W.J., Jr, Hallett, J.P., Leak, D.J., Liotta, C.L., Mielenz, J.R., Murphy, R., Templer, R., Tschaplinski, T. (2006) The path forward for biofuels and biomaterials. Science 311, 484489.
  • Wardle, D.A. (2003) Global sale of green air travel supported using biodiesel. Renew. Sust. Energ. Rev. 7, 164.