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Impacts of biofuels production and household use in sub-Saharan Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa, biofuels have been touted as more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, wood, and charcoal – but do they help alleviate poverty and improve well-being for farmers and end-users? A new research brief from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) summarises insights from a three-country study in which an ecosystem services approach was to assess the trade-offs surrounding biofuel production and household use.

Recently released the research brief “Impacts of biofuel crop production in southern Africa: Land use change, ecosystem services, poverty alleviation and food security“, outlines some of the main environmental and socioeconomic impacts of biofuel crop production and use in Malawi, Mozambique and Swaziland.

The brief is an output of Ecosystem Services for Policy Alleviation (ESPA), a nine-year global interdisciplinary UK-headed research programme that aimed to give decision-makers and natural resource users the evidence they need to address the challenges of sustainable ecosystem management and poverty reduction. ESPA closed in 2018.

Manual sugarcane harvesting at Dwangwa Estate, Malawi (photo courtesy Carla Romeu Dalmau).

The results are based on a three-year study that applied an ecosystems services framework, linking land-use change, ecosystem services (i.e. the benefits that humans derive directly and indirectly from ecosystems), human well-being, and poverty alleviation.

The authors found that bioethanol production requires far less landscape modification than household biomass fuels. Biofuel crop landscapes provide several important ecosystem services, not least producing the biofuel feedstock.

However, land-use change for biofuel crops can compromise other equally important ecosystem services such as food crop production and woodland products. The study found that these impacts vary between feedstock crops.

The study was conducted in areas of production of two biofuel feedstocks: sugarcane (Dwangwa, Malawi; Tshaneni, Swaziland) and jatropha (Mangochi, Malawi; Buzi, Mozambique), as well one area of household ethanol use (Maputo, Mozambique).

While sugarcane production involved significant trade-offs with other ecosystem services, it appeared to have large carbon-sequestration benefits. This suggests that it could be considered as an important part of countries’ climate mitigation strategies. Socioeconomic impacts for farmers and farm workers were largely positive.

However, the study found that access to modern energy services, including modern bioenergy and biofuels, were not significantly better in biofuel-producing areas than in non-biofuel-producing areas.

In the case of jatropha, the ecosystem services losses were not compensated by benefits for local communities. This was largely due to the collapse of the market and low crop yields at smallholder scale.

Despite the environmental and user benefits of household ethanol stoves, they have had limited success in Maputo. This was found to be largely because of the high costs of purchasing stoves and ethanol.

Policy-makers and other stakeholders should weigh the short- and long-term benefits and costs of biofuel energy options, including their positive and negative impacts on ecosystems, and human well-being, before deciding on policy interventions and investments.

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