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Energy biomass could be ‘bad’ without safeguards, say IEA groups

A position paper from two working groups of the International Energy Agency (IEA) concludes that using biomass for energy could be ‘bad’ if no safeguards are placed against GHG emissions and loss of biodiversity from land use change, food insecurity, overuse of water, and mismanagement of soils.

‘Good’ biomass for energy could diversify energy supply at reasonable cost, improve trade balances, and provide rural income and employment, explains Better Use of Biomass for Energy produced by lEA’s Bioenergy and Renewable Energy Technology Deployment (RETD) groups. ‘Good’ bioenergy could also reduce GHG emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels.

The IEA project is designed to identify opportunities for bioenergy to provide better GHG reductions, and to develop climate policies for better bioenergy development. The overall aim of the joint project is to provide policy-makers and other stakeholders with “concrete means of supporting sustainable bioenergy deployment” and to contribute to the international debate on the use of biomass in global energy systems in the context of climate change mitigation.

“There is a variety of substantial options for better use of biomass for energy both on the supply side of biomass, and for its conversion from electricity and heat generation to providing transport fuels, and biochemicals or biomaterials,” it states. “All countries significantly under-use their potentials of sustainable bioenergy, and could use it more efficiently in terms of costs, GHG reduction and social impacts.”

The global potential of energy biomass (without degrading biodiversity, soils and water resources) is estimated to be between 25% and 33% of global energy supply by 2050. Direct GHG emissions from expansion of biomass cultivation can be high if carbon-rich land is converted, the report warns, but this can be controlled through certification systems, while technological progress in remote sensing will make monitoring more reliable and cost-effective.

Indirect emissions from changes in land use can also be high, and are far more difficult to quantify. An effective and financially-viable scheme for reduced GHG emissions from deforestation and degradation would reduce risks of emissions from bioenergy due to changes in land use, and would improve its overall GHG balance.

“All negative effects of biomass for energy production are reduced by implementing more efficient conversion systems, especially combined heat & power (CHP or cogeneration), next-generation biofuels and integrated biorefineries, it notes. Better use of biomass for bioenergy will change over time, and there are critical milestones of better use of biomass for energy which call for flexibility to avoid potential lock-ins.

“All countries need options to solve energy security and environmental challenges arising in the coming decades, with food security being a special challenge for developing countries,” and bioenergy can play a major role, it adds. “Establishing national and global policies to foster sustainable markets for bioenergy is needed, taking into account both the risks of currently uncontrolled bioenergy production and deployment, and the opportunities arising from future RT&D efforts.”

Currently, biomass provides three-quarters of the world’s renewable energy, and 13% of global energy. In OECD countries, the average share of bioenergy is 3% and used mainly for electricity and heat generation, but its use for transport fuels is rising. In developing countries, bioenergy contributes 22% of all energy, but up to 90% in some countries.

The global potential of biomass for energy which can be grown without degrading biodiversity, soils and water resources depends on agricultural and forest developments, and is estimated as 250 to 500 EJ (50% to 100% of current global energy use).

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