2017 February 28

Bioenergy and Sustainability

Bioenergy is a versatile renewable energy source with substantial growth potential. It can be supplied in solid, liquid or gaseous forms and produces electricity, heat and transportation fuels. It plays a significant role in climate change mitigation, energy security and in generating jobs.

Bioenergy is the largest renewable energy source and will continue to dominate the energy mix. In 2012, renewables contributed 18% and bioenergy share was 14%. Bioenergy can increase its supply sustainably upto three times in the next couple of decades. It is also the only renewable energy source today capable of replacing fossil fuels in all end use sectors.

While the use of biomass for energy in majority of cases is carried out sustainably, some concern has arisen regarding risks for overexploitation and other negative effects. To safeguard the environment, and to meet desired social and economic criteria; sustainability standards have been created including ENplus, RSB, WBA, GBEP and ISO. It is important to develop internationally agreed upon standards incorporating all available schemes. They should also be correlated with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Also, updated data on bioenergy is crucial.

A standard sustainability metric is reduction in greenhouse gases. The production of bioenergy in the complete life cycle should have lower emissions than fossil fuels, which can be achieved if fossil fuels are replaced with renewables in the value chain. In forestry sector, there are certain rules inherent to sustainability:
  1. Not more biomass is harvested than regrown in a given ecosystem
  2. The fertility of the soil and water quality are safeguarded
  3. The utilization of biomass is planned and managed to protect biodiversity

It is the responsibility of the governments, private companies and landowners to enforce these rules for sustainable management.
In the debate on the climate neutrality of bioenergy, it is important to differentiate between the supply and end use. Considering the forestry sector, if the same amount of forest biomass is harvested as grown annually, i.e. a continuous forest, then the biomass is carbon neutral. This is a basic tenet of sustainability in forest laws around the world. The other part is the use of bioenergy. The options include leaving it within the forests or use to produce material (furniture, paper and pulp etc.) or energy (heat, electricity and transportation fuels). Notwithstanding, replacing fossil fuels applications would have priority for climate mitigation issues. Whichever pathway is chosen, it is important to explore the social, environmental and economic benefits.

Furthermore, improvements in biomass systems for energy should be done, for e.g. increasing yields. The agricultural yields in African subcontinent are less than half of the global averages and improved yields would mean more food and energy. Replacing inefficient conversion pathways and equipment would lead to less fuel consumption and improved health. Use of waste along with agricultural residues for energy would mean less landfills and reduced environmental burden. Finally, sustainable forestry practices in countries like Sweden and Finland should be replicated globally. Without bioenergy, the COP21 Paris agreement will fail. In the fight against climate change, all renewables (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and bioenergy) should be considered.

Karin Haara, World Bioenergy Association
Bharadwaj Kummamuru, World Bioenergy Association
Originally published in Go 100% Website: Link