The right way to do it

Strategies for the sustainable use of bioenergy are desperately needed. So far, the use of plants as a source of energy has too often endangered food security, the climate and nature conservation. Therefore, bioenergy is a controversial topic. The WBGU, the Advisory Council on Global Change of Germany’s Federal Government, proposes a two-pronged strategy.

[ By Karin Boschert and Nina V. Michaelis ]

In its recent report entitled “World in transition – Future bioenergy and sustainable land use”, the WBGU notes a recent trend to focus on biofuels used for transportion. The Council argues for a broader approach: more attention should be paid to production and consumption practices in general. In particular, large-scale production of bioenergy is said to entail risks. The experts believe that a two-pronged strategy would help make the use of bioenergy in developing countries sustainable, by stressing (A) energy supply in the rural areas and (B) exports along with the modernisation of the energy sector.

Rural energy supply

Bioenergy can make a significant contribution to the supply of energy – and hence to fighting poverty. Today, some 2.5 billion people do not have access to affordable, safe energy. Therefore, 90 % of the bio­energy currently used is consumed by traditional means. Wood, manure and waste from harvests are still the main energy sources for cooking and heating in deve­loping countries. Every year, 1.5 million people die from the health effects of the smoke – more than die from Malaria.

Women and girls are affected in another way, as they are normally the ones to fetch fuel. As a result, they also have less time for school or gainful employment. Forests are being cut down and steppes destroyed. As a result, topsoil on arable land is lost and climate change exacerbated.

Even small-scale applications of bioenergy can, however, make an enormous difference to large social strata. Inexpensive, simple technologies can be used to reduce energy poverty in urban and rural areas. For instance, modern stoves produce less smoke from wood and charcoal; and mini-biogas systems and locally produced vegetable oil can be used as fuel for power generators that drive mills and water pumps or serve transportation purposes. More efficient biomass stoves can reduce wood consumption by a quarter – and, in some cases, even by half. The use of such stoves improves the reliability of the energy supply and reduces health risks at the same time. Of course, appropriate solutions will differ from one place to another.

As the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg emphasised in 2002, more efficient, safer bio­energy consumption plays an important role in fighting poverty. The progress made in promoting efficient stoves is promising. Currently, some 220 million efficient stoves are used worldwide. A number of governmental programmes have promo­ted this cause, as has the free market.

Nonetheless, progress remains too slow. Unfortunately, conventional ideas about “modern” energy systems still dominate policymaking on power generation and consumption. Large infrastructure programmes, after all, are more attractive to donor organisations, governments in developing countries and private-sector investors than are small-scale solutions in sparsely populated areas. Governments have often failed to understand the multiple possibilities to use biomass, which is why they did not invest in these technologies appropriately. Furthermore, many rural people are not sufficiently informed and thus remain skeptical about new technologies and their follow-up costs. There still seems to be enough firewood, so people don’t bother.

Development agencies can, however, set new priorities. It should be made an international goal to put an end to bioenergy applications that pose health risks by 2030. Funds from Official Development Assistance could be used to finance such a campaign. Microloans and public-private partnerships could also prove useful.

Export and modernisation

In its report, the WBGU shows the great potential that sustainable energy crops have in tropical and subtropical areas. In one scenario, sustainable energy could cover six to almost 25 % of current energy demand depending on the region. Of this global potential, 22 to 24 % are Latin American, 12 to 15 % sub-Saharan, 12 to 13 % East Asian, seven to eight percent CIS and three to six percent South Asian. Areas needed to ensure food security and nature conservation must not be used for growing of energy crops and were therefore not included in this calculation.

To make use of bioenergy’s full potential, appropriate regulations are needed, allowing relevant actors to uphold sustainability criteria. Otherwise, the impact on the climate will be tremendous, biodiversity will continue to erode, and small farming will dwindle. National policymaking must prevent such risks and make bioenergy production sustainable.

In order to prevent the crowding out of food crops, the general focus should be on producing energy from organic waste and agricultural byproducts. A large amount of such waste and byproducts accumulate in fisheries, sawmills as well as on tea and coffee plantations in developing countries, to name just a few examples. In contrast, energy plantations imply risks to food production, and especially so in developing nations. Therefore, they should only be promoted on marginal land – that is poor, degraded and previously inadequately used. Moreover, social aspects of land use must be considered.

Some kinds of plantations are better than others. Multi-season cultures such as jatropha, palm oil, sugarcane and short-rotation forests are better than single-harvest crops like rapeseed, grain and corn. Likewise, mixed plantations should be preferred over monocultures. Proper plantation systems can improve soil quality, thereby slowing down desertification.

It also matters how bioenergy is applied (power, heat or transport). For climate-protection purposes, it is important to substitute fossil fuels with high carbon content. That potential is greater in power generation than in the transport sector.

Biomass is especially useful to fire power plants in countries where, so far, a lot of coal is being used, as is the case in India and China, for example. The waste heat from such plants could then also be utilised in cogeneration systems.

For the climate’s sake, the use of liquid biofuels such as vegetable oil and ethanol in cogeneration units is better than using them for transport. But in countries like Uganda, which gets most of its electricity from hydropower, it makes sense to use biomass as a liquid fuel to replace fossil fuels. Nonetheless, the climate-protection effect would be even better if biomass were exported for generating electricity. To promote new technologies and ensure effective technology transfers, ecologically and socially sustainable plantation and conversion methods for bioenergy should be promoted. International climate protection instruments could be used to financially support low-cost technology with a great climate-protection impact.

Minimum standards

Developing countries and newly-industrialising countries need means to assess what approaches to bioenergy production are sustainable, in order to make use of them when restructuring national energy sectors. Similarly, they need to check whether large-scale plantations make sense. Donor agencies should support them in doing so. Moreover, they should help to make sure that there are minimum standards for any subsidies as well as that sufficient regulatory capacity is in place for purposes of planning land use, certification and food security.

At the same time, international regulations can also promote the sustainable production and consumption of bioenergy. Trade barriers should be lowered, so that those developing countries which can produce bioenergy at comparatively low costs may become exporters. Trade agreements between export and import nations can ensure free access to markets, provided that bioenergy production is indeed sustainable. International schemes that compensate for foregone revenues form agriculture and forestry would help to make sure that primeval tropical forests are protected from being converted into farm land. As bioenergy is expanded, agriculture should be boosted too, in order to ensure food security.

It would be wrong, however, to reject bioenergy out of hand. It can play an important role in energy supply for rural areas; and it does offer opportunities for modernising energy systems in both rural and urban areas – provided that the proper regulatory frameworks are defined and enforced.

Related Articles


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.