Biofuels, their benefits and challenges for developing countries

Biofuels have a huge potential to help countries reduce carbon emissions and over reliance on fossil fuels. However, one of the reasons there has been resistance is that they can lead to a shortage of food since they can promote a tendency of crops being grown purely for biofuel production instead of food. With a lot of care to ensure that the negative environmental outcomes do not cancel out the benefits, biofuels can help developing countries increase their energy security.

With most developing countries suffering a huge energy crisis, it is hard to ignore biofuels as an additional source of energy. One of those countries is Uganda where a number of initiatives are already underway to promote production of biofuels.

In June this year, Uganda’s cabinet approved the Biofuels Bill 2015, a legal framework that could facilitate blending of biofuels with petroleum products. When put into place, the policy will make it compulsory for industry players to blend biofuels and fossil fuels. Not only will the initiative improve the country’s energy security and facilitate utilization of biofuels,  it will also increase the life of the country's recently discovered oil reserves by way of partial substitution.

Uganda is planning to support developers of fossil fuels in order to promote the sector further and this carries a huge potential in regard to promoting local incomes in the rural areas. The government has said that promoting biofuel initiatives will boost rural earnings and increase employment opportunities by supporting the agro-processing sector. According to a report that sought to analyze whether biofuels would help the country's energy agenda, biofuels can help Uganda reduce reliance of fuel importation among other benefits.

Environmental benefits of biofuels

Biofuels produce significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels although the method used determines whether those benefits are finally achieved. This is probably the biggest reason for their continued search over the fossils alternatives. Besides, the sources of biofuels are locally available and renewable. Biofuels are also cleaner and a safer alternative healthwise because they produce lesser toxins.

If exploited wisely, biofuels certainly fit in the low carbon emission agendas being aggressively pursued today by many developing nations. They can be used to replace extensive use of charcoal and energy sources that promote deforestation and thus reduce environmental pollution and degradation. Biofuels can be used to complement other sources of renewable energy. Not only can it help countries meet future pressing energy demand - which was projected to reach 35,000MW by 2015 and 1,809mwh in 2025 in Uganda - but also increase the amount of renewables in the energy mix. Uganda, which is targeting to produce 61% of energy from renewables by 2017, can partially bank on biofuels to reach that target, although promoting other sources of renewable energy such as wind and solar is important.

Biofuel challenges and the way forward

However, it is necessary to ensure that the production of biofuels is checked to ensure it does not lead to food shortages, water shortages, high food prices, deforestation, hasten climate change and other ecological damages. There is no doubt that every renewable energy source need be pursued with an aim to maximizing overall benefits and so the way forward remains how to harness benefits of biofuels while checking out the negative outcomes. In fact, biofuels carry many unique benefits not afforded by other energy sources, thus having it in the energy mix in a country can prove beneficial.

Although growing crops specifically for biofuels seems to have its own challenges, development of second generation bioenergy sources (waste biomass) can be very helpful in that regard. Production of biofuels from second generation sources such as woody crops, agricultural residues and waste minimizes pressure on diverting food crops for biofuels. This can help avoid food shortages and high food prices.

Jatropha plantation in Uganda: The plant is to be used in production of biofuels in the country

Jatropha plantation in Uganda: The plant is to be used in production of biofuels in the country

In addition to using second generation bioenergy sources, biofuels must not be pursued with an overall agenda to totally replace fossil fuels, given their associated disadvantages. Besides, developing countries such as Uganda are banking on recent oil discoveries to drive their economic development. Countries targeting to gain the said benefits can continue pursuing policies that limit production of biofuels from food crops. For instance, the various feedstocks for biofuel production in Uganda include soyabeans, palm oil, giant king grass and jastropha - and the most versatile would be Jatropha since it is suitable for Uganda soil.

Limiting production of biofuels from some food crops, for instance, can reduce the risk of rising food prices and shortages, that could occur if land is extensively used for production of food crops diverted purposely for biofuel production. Another way is to map out lands and delinate which biofuel crops are to be grown and where they perform better. If the situation is left unchecked, there is no doubt that vast lands would be needed for growing crops for biofuel production, which (without mapping) encourages deforestation, a huge catalyst for negative climate change.