Speaking at the Protecting the Future of the Biofuels Industry in Southern Africa Conference, held in Pretoria this month, Sugrue said the biofuels industry has many agendas, from fuel replacement to profits, and this situation needs to change if the Southern African Development Community (SADC) wants to prosper in the future.
She says the primary goal of the biofuels industry should be economic and social development. A by-product of that development would be lower emissions from the burning of such fuels.
Her comments come on the back of the World Bank's research paper entitled ‘Rising Food and Fuel Prices - Addressing the Risks to Future Generations' in which it states that countries must build sounder and more comprehensive social protection systems over the medium term. Investing in better safety nets will protect the poor from the worst consequences of the rise in food and fuel prices and increase the range of options at governments' disposal to cope with future crises.
The production and use of biofuels has been identified as one way that the SADC region can make foreign exchange savings and rather spend money on creating productive small-scale farming, land reform and for further developing farming methods that reduce fossil fuel inputs, says Sugrue
It is estimated that Africa could provide one-quarter of the projected total world bioenergy potential by 2050 if managed properly, says Stellenbosch University's Emile van Zyl, who is also a research fellow at the Chair of Energy Research (CoER): Biofuels and other alternative clean fuels.
Making use of this potential would enable Africa to produce a substantial amount of its own energy, giving it greater control of the supply chain feeding its own energy requirements.
Sugrue said that biofuels' role should be to stimulate local agricultural production at a community level by providing a larger market, which will allow greater revenue for farmers. It will generate employment and fund community development.
Brazil has achieved what Sugrue is hoping the SADC will achieve. For the past 35, years it has been producing biofuels from sugar cane farmed on 7-million hectares of non-forest land. It does not rely on crude oil for fuel and has empowered thousands of communities with its sugar plantations, fermentation plants and fuel refineries.
Energy is linked to economic and social development and productive energy is the driving force behind an economy. Sugrue suggested that the SADC should rather invest in using its current energy supplies more efficiently and in a way that contributes to social development, suggesting public transport as a more efficient use of energy than private cars running biofuel.
She also dismissed the idea that biofuels should primarily be used to reduce carbon emissions, stating that it is an inefficient method of capturing carbon.
Sugrue and Van Zyl, in each of their presentations to the conference, discussed a method of carbon capture using biochar (see sidebar), which can sequestrate a substantial amount of carbon from the atmosphere. However, both still acknowledged that the contribution that biofuels can make towards reducing greenhouse gases cannot be overlooked.
It was widely agreed at the conference that the SADC has the potential to empower itself into the future through farming biofuel crops and refining biofuels. The SADC's export potential is substantial. Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Malawi all have great fuel crop potential, more so than South Africa owing to their greater abundance of arable land and subtropical climates .
However, there are hurdles to overcome.
If the SADC wants to supply fuel to markets in the European Union (EU) then the fuels will need to meet EU criteria, standards and specification, which have yet to be specified.
Also, there are certification costs involved in such exports, which could be avoided if the fuel crop oil is exported before it is refined into fuel, however the SADC then would need to purchase the refined fuel, negating the gains made from exporting the base oil.
The delegates at the conference agreed that what the region needs is an integrated and all- encompassing biofuels policy outlining the whole biofuels process, from land-use policies, farming practices and fuel crops planted to the refining technologies used and the eventual marketing of the fuels.
Only when the SADC has a policy governing biofuels projects can the individual States look to their own projects and legislations.