Africa’s Sustainable Bioenergy Potential

22 July 2014 - // Opinions
Oluniyi Robbin-Coker
Former Minister of Energy and Water, Sierra Leone

Certified sustainable bioenergy production in Africa is feasible and necessary. Sierra Leone and many other African states are ready to prove it, but they need predictable and attractive markets, such as the EU’s 10% renewable energy target in transport.

Sierra Leone, like the whole African continent, is undergoing rapid change. Attracting investment, improving the business climate and diversifying the economy are priorities for our government in the coming years. In agriculture, Sierra Leone is moving away from mainly subsistence production of rice to commercialized production of diverse crops.

In collaboration with a number of important stakeholders, the Government of Sierra Leone adopted guidelines for sustainable agricultural and bioenergy investment which equally apply to investors, civil society, and local communities, both for domestic development and certified export. These guidelines take into account the European Union’s renewable energy legislation, to ensure that best practices are adopted in Sierra Leone.

Sustainable biofuels can bring real benefits to both the EU and Africa’s developing countries. While the EU can gain from substantial supplies of high-performing certified biofuels, investments in bioenergy can enhance Africa’s neglected agricultural sector and yield important benefits such as improved infrastructure which is vital for food security and development. The spillover effects of bioenergy investments into overall development, in the form of increased productivity and poverty reduction, are crucial for Africa’s future.

African bioenergy is full of potential, for the continent and for the EU’s 10% renewable energy target. Production costs of sugarcane ethanol are consistently below $0.3 per liter, which is ten times below the price of gasoline in Germany. Sugarcane ethanol production achieves 80% CO2 savings compared to gasoline, and even more compared to unconventional oil sources like tar sands and shale gas. African soils generally contain very low levels of carbon which, combined with the selection of degraded land and proper agricultural practices, result in keeping carbon emissions from Land-Use-Change to a minimum.

Biofuels represent a real opportunity for African farmers and a huge potential to drive green growth in Africa. As biofuels can be locally produced, stored, transported and traded easily, their potential to attract investment is high. With 2/3 of the African population dependent on farming, investment in the agricultural and renewable energy sectors can drive productivity, improve farming techniques, increase competitiveness in other economic sectors and create local employment.

There are risks associated with the expansion of bioenergy crops, but dismissing biofuels altogether because of potential unidentified indirect risks does not take into account the economic and environmental benefits of African bioenergy agriculture. The EU should give the African biofuels sector a chance to prove its ability to substantially contribute to the 2020 EU renewable energy targets and beyond. The EU should keep its important leadership role in setting standards for sustainable production practices. Without this global leadership, there would be no less bioenergy on the market, but less sustainable bioenergy.

However, there is a distinct lack of coherence between setting very high standards for biofuels and cutting the volumes: if African bioenergy meets the EU’s sustainability criteria, then they must have a positive impact and should be encouraged. Reducing biofuels volumes – as currently being discussed in the EU – will create barriers to entry to even the best performing bioenergy crops. Such an incoherent policy will jeopardize projects and cause yet another lost opportunity for the African agricultural and energy sectors.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not (necessarily) reflect REVOLVE's editorial stance.
Oluniyi Robbin-Coker
Former Minister of Energy and Water, Sierra Leone

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