For further information about our use of renewable energy, see Reducing GHG from manufacturing.
Unilever supports policies that accelerate the exploitation of cost-effective, sustainable sources for renewable energy. We believe the focus of policy-makers should be on the most cost-effective alternatives for efficient energy use and effective emission reductions. It will be important to be mindful of negative unintended consequences that could arise in the pursuit of greenhouse gas reduction strategies. One such risk is the potential impact of biomass energy programmes and biofuel targets, in particular on food security and sustainable agriculture.
According to the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), world population growth and increased economic development will require a substantial increase in food production in the coming years. As in the past, this increase in demand can largely be met by increased productivity. However, the additional use of food-grade feedstock as biomass for energy on a large scale will compete heavily for land presently used for growing food. This could destabilise the world’s food supply and increase local food shortages and prices.
Biomass is a limited, valuable resource with multiple uses including food, feed and fuel. Where biomass is used to generate energy, we believe it should be used in applications with the highest greenhouse gas emissions savings. Current technologies include heat and power generation, which provide a much better performance relative to first-generation biofuels.
Biofuels such as biodiesel and bio-ethanol can be divided into first generation and second generation. Currently, only first-generation fuels are on the market. These are produced from feedstocks such as vegetable oils, starch ethanol or sugar ethanol.
Second-generation biofuels are produced from non-food feedstocks such as residues, waste and cellulosic material from wood and straw. They are not yet available on a commercial scale.
Unilever believes that most first-generation biofuels are neither environmentally efficient nor cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many studies have shown that several first-generation biofuels have a poor performance (which could even be negative) with regard to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on fossil fuels.
Crops such as rapeseed or soy beans, the main feedstocks for biodiesel, create indirect land use changes (ILUC) as food and feed crops have to be produced elsewhere. In fact, a negative CO2 balance occurs from land use change if forests or grasslands are replaced by crops, which store much less carbon per hectare than forests or grasslands do. The use of these crops for biodiesel production therefore offers only a very limited impact on greenhouse gas emissions reductions. If ILUC is taken into account this limited impact is often negated and turned into a negative greenhouse gas balance.
In addition, we have concerns about the impact of the promotion of biofuels on the availability and sustainability of a number of raw materials that the demand for biomass could create. If healthy vegetable oils such as rapeseed oil are used in biofuels, these could become in short supply, driving consumers to animal fats – and the associated increased risk of heart disease and high cholesterol.
Developing high-performance, bio-energy technologies
We believe that the development of high-performance, bio-energy technologies – including second-generation biofuels – with an efficient carbon and energy balance, is essential.
New innovative bio-energy applications, together with the use of electricity for transport, would provide strong incentives for the application of renewable energy technologies while minimising the negative repercussions on food markets and food security.
Unilever believes there is a strong case for government and business investment in new technologies and further research on the sustainable use of biomass. See our Promoting Sustainable Biofuels
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brochure for more information.
Sustainability for bio-energy
For all forms of bio-energy, broader sustainability issues arise: the use of valuable food crops for energy purposes will increase pressure on eco-systems and biodiversity. Deforestation, particularly in the case of palm oil and soy beans, could lead to the devastation of the last remaining rainforests in Borneo and the Amazon region.
We believe governments worldwide have the responsibility to conduct a full impact assessment of their bio-energy policies. These assessments should cover environmental, social and economic impacts from production through to end use. Policies that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should contain full lifecycle assessments for individual applications. This should include direct and indirect land use with regard to the carbon balance.
We believe that sustainability criteria should be introduced for the use of biomass within energy programmes. This should include criteria at the production level as well as criteria at a macro-level. For example, the overall greenhouse gas balance and energy efficiency, food security and the protection of biodiversity and eco-systems. We believe that the use of biomass for energy purposes should not be stimulated by government programmes without the application of transparent sustainability criteria. This is to avoid generating unintended consequences that could actually undermine the original goal of a more sustainable energy policy.