Bioenergy will need to play an increasing role in a low-carbon future, producing up to 17 percent of total energy by 2060 and contribute 20 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions in the same time period, if international climate change commitments are to be met.  That’s according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) Technology Roadmap, Delivering Sustainable Bioenergy, which details the necessary near-term steps to a dramatic and sustainable increase in bioenergy usage.  

While burning biomass (organic material) for energy and heat has been used since the beginning of human history, and is still used in much of the developing world, IEA defines bioenergy as “modern technologies [that] convert this organic matter to solid, liquid and gaseous forms that can more efficiently provide for energy needs and replace fossil fuels.”  Feedstocks include wet organic waste (sewage, animal waste, organic solid waste), residues and co-products from agriculture and forestry, energy crops (corn, wheat, sugar and vegetable oils) and non-food crops (grasses, trees), and oil plants (jatropha, camelina).

Globally, bioenergy consumption is currently five times that of wind and solar, at 4.5 percent of total energy consumption, but these rates are still below what is needed, according to IEA.  The Technology Roadmap calls for a three-fold increase in bioenergy use by 2030 to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals, primarily in the transportation sector. The authors caution that “bioenergy can also sometimes be a controversial topic, and there is an increasing understanding that bioenergy can only expand if supplied and used in a sustainable manner.” 

While liquid fuels will dominate the transportation sector for some time, biofuels and electricity can complement each other in the light duty sector, as range extenders or even renewable sources of hydrogen.  The marine and aviation sectors represent the longest term applications for renewable liquid fuels. Additionally, biomass for heat and electricity as well as renewable chemicals and products will need to play an increasing role, going forward.  Within IEA’s deep decarbonization strategy, bioenergy and carbon storage (BECSS), which would allow for negative carbon emissions, will also need to play a role going forward.  However, these technologies are largely untested and none have reached commercial scale.

As well as playing a significant role in reducing GHG, bioenergy can assist in reaching sustainable development goals. While not specifically called out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, sustainable development of the bioenergy sector can help meet development goals through providing rural economic opportunity, spurring investments in rural infrastructure and supporting land reclamation as well as providing cleaner sources of heating, cooking and electricity for the 2.7 billion people who lack access to energy worldwide.

However, sustainable bioenergy must provide reductions in greenhouse gases, deep reductions in GHG and avoid negative environmental and socio-economic impacts.  IEA recommends the development of country or region-specific bioenergy frameworks that consider:

  • Development of performance-based (GHG) standards
  • Continuous improvement of GHG standards
  • Sustainability of the entire supply chain
  • Regional differences – including issues of governance
  • Increased financial investments in the industry, currently at around $25 billion per year, to $200 billion per year by 2050.

The report serves as an update to IEA’s 2011 Bioenergy Roadmap, and intends to track the sector’s progress growing forward and to accelerate the deployment of sustainable bioenergy use.


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