Modern bioenergy offers a represents a broad range of opportunities, but also entails many trade-offs and risks, according to a new report from UN-Energy, which includes all of the UN’s agencies, programs and organizations working in the area of energy.
The report—Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers—is not prescriptive. It proposes a framework in which to discuss nine key sustainability issues facing bioenergy development, poses key questions and explains the principal trade-offs.
The report notes that modern bioenergy represents an extraordinary opportunity for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, offsetting reliance on petroleum and helping meet the needs of the 1.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to electricity in their homes, and the 2.4 billion who rely and straw, dung and other traditional biomass fuels to meet their energy needs.
However, the report cautions,
...the economic, environmental, and social impacts of bioenergy development must be assessed carefully before deciding if and how rapidly to develop the industry and what technologies, policies, and investment strategies to pursue. Rapid growth in liquid biofuel production will make substantial demands on the world’s land and water resources at a time when demand for both food and forest products is also rising rapidly. Liquid biofuel growth has already begun to raise the prices of the world’s two leading agricultural feedstock[s]—maize and sugar—and soaring palm oil demand may be leading industrialists in Southeast Asia to clear tropical forests for new plantations.
The nine key sustainability issues that need to be considered, according to the report, are the following:
The ability of modern bioenergy to provide energy services for the poor;
Implications for agro-industrial development and job creation;
Health and gender implications;
Implications for the structure of agriculture;
Implications for food security;
Implications for government budget;
Implications for trade, foreign exchange balances and energy security;
Impacts on biodiversity and natural resource management; and
Implications for climate change.
Although the issues around bioenergy are complex, the report notes, “this complexity should not restrain action.“
The movement towards more sustainable energy systems that draw from all potential renewable sources, including bioenergy, is a matter of urgency.