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Inaugural Lectures

Stakes and Challenges for Sustainable Development

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Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture 15 December 2011

Source: La lettre, no. 33, May 2012

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How can we ensure the sustainability of biological resources?

1The development of new industries using biomass as raw material to produce a broad range of products, through a large number of different transformation processes, raises new questions on the associated environmental impacts. The current situation, mainly due to the significant development of the bio-fuel industries, is characterized by strong demand for sustainability criteria to apply to these new industries, particularly from an environmental perspective.

2A foresight study of the future non-food uses of plant biomass was carried out using the classical scenario-building method during the ARP Plant for the Future (VegA) (foresight workshop), which involved CIRAD, IFP-En and INRA. Four contrasting scenarios of non-food uses of biomass were built, all integrating global energy demand scenarios devised by the International Energy Agency. These scenarios were used to study the potential share of biomass within the energy field and different innovation trajectories leading up to 2050, in relation to the transformations of society and the orientations of public policies and global governance. Chemicals were not consi­de­red as currently account for one tenth of oil uses. The uses of biomass in these different scenarios vary depending on whether it is used for transportation, production of electri­city and heat, or chemistry, and on whether traditional uses of biomass, such as heat, are being replaced by new uses which render them more efficient.

3Two factors are particularly important for the development of bio-energies: first, the evolution of public policies in relation to the dynamics of controversies, changing societal expectations and geostrategic issues; and second, the price of fossil fuels on which the economic profitability of these industries is contingent.

4If, within the current means of production and processing, the biomass offer had to meet a demand ranging from 720 to 1150 Mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent) for “new” uses alone – that is, transportation (liquid bio-fuels), production of electricity and heat (other than so-called traditional direct combustion uses) and production of bio-molecules – the required surface areas would range from 275 to 925 million hectares. These orders of magnitude rule out the possibility of meeting massive demands for biomass from a sustainable development per­s­pective, using only dedicated crops (whether they are first or second generation-based), and call for caution regarding the long-term projections produced on the use of biomass for energy and chemistry. The ineffectiveness of complete reliance on biomass without a parallel policy to reduce energy consumption stands out very clearly. Finally, these results call for consideration of the possible tensions not only with food uses, but also with the non-food uses of biomass that already exist.

5This quantified analysis also highlights the fact that the question of the competition between food and non-food industries exceeds the purely spatial dimension of the phenomenon (the issue is not one of space limitations: large arable surface areas remain in the world, though very unevenly distributed geographically): it relates more to the environmental and social impact of the exploitation of that land, and to the ways in which it can contribute to or constrain development trajectories, particularly the agricultural trajectories of countries of the South, which play an absolutely crucial role in overcoming global food challenges both in the short term and the long term. In short, these reflections broaden the debate on biomass beyond the scope of energy flows, carbon and hectares. We are faced with a host of interlinking research issues which, organized as a whole, should provide us with solutions for sustainable development. Can we however talk of a bioeconomy or a green economy? And what about citizens: how will they behave? The human factor is the main unknown. What should we make of expected developments relating to well-being? Energy sobriety, for example, shows us that beyond one Toe/person-year, life expectancy is stable. This simple correlation shows us how our efforts towards sustainability can be adapted locally according to societies’ needs.

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Paul COLONNA, « Stakes and Challenges for Sustainable Development », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2015, consulté le 18 décembre 2018. URL :

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Scientific Delegate for Sustainable Development and Director of Institut Carnot for Bio-Energies, Bio-Molecules, and Bio-Materials of Renewable Carbon.

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