Bioenergy – can it work for the Global South?

New guide provides sustainability framework for wood-based bioenergy
Mixed species planted forest on degraded land in Thailand providing woody biomass, non timber forest products and plant biodiversity. Photo by CIFOR-ICRAF/M Brady

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We recently published a guide for developing countries in the global South to provide a better understanding of the issues, potential and sustainability of bioenergy.

Bioenergy is posited to become a major source of energy, not only because of its better climate credentials compared to fossil fuel, but also because of increased efficiency and lower production costs.

This trend is, like most new systems, reliant on a number of factors, including knowledge, skills, technologies, legislation and investment. We hope that our guide will help developing countries identify their needs and build capacity to integrate sustainable bioenergy into their national energy plans. To aid this, in the guide we propose a simplified sustainability framework for wood-based bioenergy, with accompanying recommendations.

Bioenergy is energy produced from sustainably sourced biomass – forestry or agricultural feedstock, including woody waste – through industrial-scale energy for power generation, heating and transport.

Fossil fuel is the major source of global energy for transport and electricity, accounting for 64% of total emissions in 2019. Reducing and replacing fossil fuel has been a subject of intensive research worldwide, the aim of which is to find ways to meet the global target of net-zero carbon emissions through diversifying energy sources and ensuring energy security.

While there are many countries – notably, Brazil, USA and the nations of the European Union – that have adopted bioenergy as an important part of their strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet targets under the Paris Climate Agreement, there are nonetheless several arguments against expansion of bioenergy production, which we discuss in detail in the guide.

Whether bioenergy production will have a negative impact on food security is the most debated. The threat is that new agricultural land may be used to produce bioenergy crops or feedstock, leading not only to a reduction in land for producing food, but also to an increase in deforestation with its associated loss of biodiversity and deleterious effect on the provision of ecosystem services such as air quality, water-cycle regulation, natural habitat for predators and pollinators critical for agricultural health, and soil erosion with its accompanying loss of fertility, increased risk of landslides, and sedimentation of waterways.

The argument against such a threat is that bioenergy has co-benefits if nations ensure that biomass is produced on already degraded and underused land and provides energy security and emission reductions, supports rural livelihoods, and enhances biodiversity and ecosystem services. One example of an attempt at such legislative surety is the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive II, which contains sustainability criteria, including for biodiversity related to forest bioenergy. (A new REDIII agreement, which is awaiting approval by the EU Parliament and EU countries before it can become law, includes additional safeguards on biomass use and stronger sustainability requirements).

We identified benefits of bioenergy that are applicable to the global South, including sustainable forest management; high energy efficiency and low production costs of advanced biofuels; emissions reduction; value addition to woody biomass; support for biodiversity; socioeconomic benefits to local people through new employment and income generation; and new and diversified energy supplies. Establishment of sustainable supply of bioenergy material can allow developing countries to better support rural communities, create more equitable economic opportunities, and enhance energy access.

However, some countries may need to refine – or introduce new – policies and strategies for natural resources, climate, energy and land use based on their specific social, economic and environmental circumstances. Using the framework in our guide, countries can design sustainable bioenergy systems.

The framework

The framework for wood-based bioenergy is designed to help countries evaluate, and benefit from, unused land resources. The framework has 5 major elements and 11 sub-elements.

Wood-based bioenergy development process encompassing the bioenergy life cycle
Source: Brady MA, Sharma S, Baral Hi, Nasi R. 2023. Bioenergy sustainability in the global South: Constraints and opportunities. CIFOR-ICRAF Occasional Paper 2. https://doi.org/10.17528/cifor-icraf/008846

For many countries in the global South, large-scale bioenergy systems are challenging and risky, owing to high capital costs of new biofuels and sustainable supply of biomass. However, with about half of the biomass used for traditional heating and cooking in developing countries in Africa and Asia, as well as the availability of marginal and degraded land, there is a real opportunity for effective and efficient, small-scale, wood-based power generation that helps achieve Sustainable Development Goal 7 (access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030).

We offer the following guidance to countries in the global South seeking to establish sustainable, wood-based bioenergy:

  • Landscape-level planning and management: a long-term vision with an integrated approach to land use across whole landscapes, typically mixed use. Marginal and degraded land (not used for food production) may be considered. Productivity, species, available area and status of local communities will determine sustainability of supply. Biomass must not be sourced from a natural forest or conservation area.
  • Use of marginal and degraded land: natural forests, wetlands, peatlands, high conservation value and cultivation land are not to be used. Criteria should also avoid indirect land-use change owing to biomass production.
  • Mixed-species plantations (agroforestry): site-specific, mixed, high-yielding and drought- and flood-resistant species are ideal for a sustainable supply of biomass.
  • Seamless monitoring system: based on ‘smart’ technology, such as smartphones with monitoring applications that integrate local and national data.
  • Local initiatives: focus on local needs for energy access with strong partnerships between individual smallholders, communities, larger private sector actors, research and academic institutions, and government and non-governmental bodies.
  • Conflict management: a conflict-management protocol with a representative committee, for example.
  • Governance: local governments should integrate the biomass supply system’s governance into their own.
  • Documentation and record-keeping: project and monitoring reports are essential to demonstrate adherence to the principles and criteria of sustainability.

We also propose that a global South bioenergy forum is needed to support dialogue, learning and cooperation, and to help ensure that the positive, transformative aspects of bioenergy are realized and deleterious ones avoided. An example of such a forum is the CIFOR-ICRAF Circular Bioeconomy Transformative Partnership Platform.

This work is partly funded by the National Institute of Forest Science, Republic of Korea.

For more information on this topic, please contact Himlal Baral at h.baral@cifor-icraf.org.
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