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CHILE: Biofuels Head to the Forests

Daniela Estrada* - Tierramérica

SANTIAGO, Feb 6 2009 (IPS) - Chile has set its sights on producing second-generation plant-based fuels from forest biomass within the next five years. But before that it must consider the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of such an endeavour, warn experts and activists.

Palownia tree shoot. Credit: Photo Stock

Palownia tree shoot. Credit: Photo Stock

Chile's heavy energy dependence and its continued increase in emissions of climate-changing gases have led this South American country to pursue renewable energy options like solar, wind, geothermal and biomass.

Biomass – renewable organic material from plants and animals – serves to generate electricity, for thermal energy production and the output of liquid fuels like bioethanol or biodiesel.

A law passed in April 2008 requires that as of 2010 at least five percent of Chile's electricity must come from non-conventional renewable sources, including biomass. Beginning in 2015, the proportion must increase 0.5 percent annually until reaching a full 10 percent in 2024.

Two consortiums were created in October for research and development of lignocellulosic biofuels, that is, fuels based on woody fibres.

The goal is to "surpass the expansion limits and the grave conflicts that the current crop-based fuels (made from foods like maize or sugarcane) can create," said Guilherme Schuetz, coordinator of the regional biofuels group of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Germany, United States and Sweden lead the world in researching these products in the laboratory or pilot project phase. In three to five years, Europe could be using second-generation biofuels on an important scale, "though some countries may be on the verge of doing so," Schuetz told Tierramérica.

The International Energy Agency estimates that production costs of second-generation bioethanol and biodiesel today run 80 cents to one dollar per litre.

That would be 100 to 130 dollars per 159-litre barrel, noted Schuetz – expensive given current petroleum prices. "However, those costs could be cut in half by 2030 if the new generation of biofuels is produced commercially," he said.

According to the 7th National Agricultural and Forestry Census 2006-2007, in Chile there are 15.8 million hectares used in farm production and 15.9 million hectares of forest: 2.7 million planted and 13.2 million of native forest.

"With the premise of reconciling agroforest production" for the domestic and foreign market, and "maintaining sustainable farming activity that is also sustainable over time, preserving water and soil," producing second-generation biofuels is "a viable option" for Chile, Iván Nazif, director of the governmental Office for Agrarian Policy and Research, said in a Tierramérica interview.

They would be generated from farming and forest waste and from plantations of poplar, paulownia and acacia trees or maiden grass. Also considered important sources are the microalgae found in northern Chile and the animal fats from livestock in the south, noted Schuetz.

But the species of fast-growing plants would be cultivated at high density so would quickly use up soil nutrients in addition to requiring a great deal of water, warns Daniela Escalona, of the non-governmental Latin American Observatory for Environmental Conflicts, and the Action Network for Social and Environmental Justice.

They also contain high caloric value and are the most appropriate for energy use.

According to Nazif, "the production of second generation biofuels necessarily should include the experience of the first generation fuels," which is why the market has been regulated and there are pilot experiments under way in some regions, mainly with biodiesel.

Second generation crop-based fuels "only bring good news" to a country with a consolidated forest industry, says Aldo Cerda, forestry expert with the Chile Foundation, a public-private institution dedicated to innovation and development of the country's human capital.

"We will have more demand for wood fibre, with benefits for all owners, and more demand for management of native forests," and the recovery of degraded areas, Cerda told Tierramérica. He believes the industry will have "sophisticated actors" who will work with certified plots to avoid criticism from the environmental sector.

The Chile Foundation is participating in Bioenercel, one of the two consortiums promoted by the government, along with the country's leading forestry companies – Masisa, CMPC and Arauco – and two public universities.

With a five-year budget of 10 million dollars, the consortium is developing protocols to produce "cheap and competitive" bioethanol.

However, activist Escalona expressed concern about the effects that these fuels would have on the environment and on the peasant and indigenous communities of Chile's forested regions.

For Schuetz, the risks "depend on the scale of production and the availability of raw materials," which is why he sees advantages in biodiesel made from agricultural and forestry waste.

"With respect to native forest, it is very important that legislation only permits using lignocellulosic waste that is obtained through forest maintenance," he stressed.

The loss of natural habitat as a result of monoculture and the possible spread of genetically modified trees with unknown impacts are other potential dangers to be studied, he said.

The country needs to "carefully weigh the pros and cons" of this activity, including "the balance of carbon dioxide throughout the cycle, the repercussions on biodiversity, the nutrient cycle of the soils and the hydrological cycle," as well as its socioeconomic impacts, said Schuetz.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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