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18 May 2015

Q&A: Francis X. Johnson on the science and politics of bioenergy and sustainability

A major new book examines the potential for sustainable growth of bioenergy use, potential impacts, and the role of good governance in maximizing benefits and avoiding harm.

Over the past two years, 137 experts from 24 countries and 82 institutions, including SEI’s Francis X. Johnson, have collaborated to analyse a range of issues related to the sustainability of bioenergy production and use. The resulting report, Bioenergy & Sustainability: Bridging the Gaps, was launched on 14 April. Below, Johnson answers questions about the assessment’s key findings and their implications for public policy.

Q: There is a huge volume of literature on bioenergy out there. How does this book fit in?
FXJ: It brings together the different dimensions into one reference volume, covering land, water, soils, food security, climate, energy access, ecosystems, biodiversity, economics, conversion technologies and energy security. It serves as scientific reference, but also for policy-makers and general audiences.

Q: The project was led by experts in Brazil, a country that has been a pioneer in biofuels production. How does that affect the perspective of the book as a whole?
FXJ: A country like Brazil that has done well with bioenergy naturally produces scientists who are optimistic, which results in what some may consider a positive spin. But this counters a recent tendency in Europe and U.S. to oppose bioenergy on conservationist grounds. That perspective might work for industrialized economies, but for developing countries with largely agrarian economies, modern bioenergy is too valuable for global market access, poverty reduction and energy security to simply dismiss it.

Q: What would you say are the most important insights/messages from the book as a whole?
FXJ: A key message is that society cannot afford to forgo the benefits of biofuels done well – just as it cannot afford the risks of biofuels done badly (see also this 2009 Science article). Constraining bioenergy, as is being done in the EU, mainly supports the fossil fuels status quo; instead, we should be doing bioenergy better while also reducing energy demand. The Assessment also shows that as we move to integrated systems, we cannot analyse liquid biofuels in isolation from other markets, surrounding landscapes, and other bio-based products.

Read the rest of the interview here

Full interview at SEI website

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