Foreign Policy Blogs

Not The Savior Once Hoped

Photo by: Kambou Sia/AFP/Getty Images

Not long ago jatropha curcas, a flowering plant in the jatropha family, was believed to be an efficient source for biofuels. The plant was viewed so advantageously due to its properties. Tests showed it could grow productively in some of the harshest conditions; such as on marginal land without fertilizer and during drought conditions. Not to mention that it is not a threat to food security due to its seeds being inedible, and it has nearly 40 percent oil output when crushing its black seeds twice the size of a coffee bean. Simply, the plant was viewed as the opportunity to end the quandary of biofuels: It would not threaten crops for the ability to drive vehicles.

Traditionally, lots of water and fertilizer is needed to produce biofuels, and swaths of land are cleared to grow the crops—sometimes on land that could be used for food. The after effects have proven deleterious: soil degradation, desertification, deforestation, and release of large amounts of carbon emissions.

Jatropha was viewed to produce a clean source of energy that helps reduce emissions and stem deforestation by alleviating the need to clear forests for planting crops. In fact, the plant waster after oil extraction can be used as a fertilizer. The plant itself recycles 100 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions produced by burning the biofuel; two mature plants can absorb 1 metric ton of carbon every year.

Using the biofuel for vehicles or irrigation, or many other uses, is viewed as an opportunity to reduce populations’ reliance on volatile international oil markets and the price swings that are accompanied.

At the bottom of the pyramid, it provides the opportunity for subsistence farmers to increase rural incomes by using it as a cash crop without harming food production. By doing so, people can be moved out of dire poverty and be provided with a ladder to better socioeconomic conditions.

With so much hypothesized potential, jatropha, native to South America, has been planted on millions of acres across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade. As governments worldwide have been seeking to grow their renewable energy portfolio, jatropha was seen as a win-win. Investors saw the same potential and money flowed into projects.

Biofuels have grown importance in the global energy mix, and will continue to do so as energy demand continues to escalate. According to the International Energy Association (IEA), global production of biofuels has been growing steadily over the last decade from 16 billion liters in 2000 to more than 100 billion liters in 2011. Current biofuels production, however, does not always meet expected net life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission and cost performance targets. Jatropha’s properties as a carbon-sink, removing carbon dioxide from the air and buries it underground, and producing carbon emission free energy presented an opportunity to emerge with a growing importance to the global energy mix.

In the end, jatropha has not proven as advantageous and productive as had been predicted compared to other biofuels. Jatropha has proven to be similar to most other crops in that it needs water, fertile land and good weather conditions to display the productive qualities previously described. It does have the ability to grow under the stated harsh conditions, but only marginal results entail. Adding to the complexity, in many rural areas, many farmers did not have the necessary training to manage larger yields of crops. All told, these results left farmers in dire straits, governments with inefficient support policies and private sector investments wilting away.

This is not to say there were not successes from jatropha. Most prominently, a trans-Atlantic Aero Mexico flight was powered partly by jatropha in August 2011. The plane was fueled by a mix of 55 tons of conventional jet fuel and 20 tons of fuel made from jatropha. Air Japan, Continental Airlines and Air New Zealand ran preliminary tests using jatropha-based biofuels also.

Despite not living up to expectations, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that by 2018 jatropha-based aircraft fuel could be produced for 86¢ per liter, about the same price as conventional jet fuel today.

Furthermore, there are still companies, despite financial hurdles, experimenting with the plant, some by genetically modifying it, and implementing pilot projects or research dollars with the belief the plant can harness previously thought benefits.

If the breakthrough occurs in an environmentally and social friendly manner, there stands to be more food and energy security, coupled with carbon emission reductions and sustainable development. It would rekindle major investment and it will revolutionize the biofuels sector as previously envisioned.




Joe Gurowsky
Joe Gurowsky

Joe Gurowsky focuses on energy, environment, geopolitics, international development and climate related issues. Recently, he worked in Ethiopia and Tanzania regarding different energy related programs . Joe has also traveled to Costa Rica, Ghana, the UAE, Germany and Alberta, Canada for aspects of energy and environmental policy.

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