Bioenergy and sustainable development: what evidence for policy-making?

The use and expansion of bioenergy, understood widely as energy derived from any form of biomass such as recently living organisms or their metabolic by-products, has sparked an intense debate on whether it can contribute to climate mitigation and sustainable development. This article, co-authored with other IPCC colleagues, represents one of the most comprehensive systematic reviews to date analysing the interaction between bioenergy and sustainable development. In particular, we ask: where do sustainable development impacts from bioenergy production take place? What is the evidence for the purported impacts? How are impacts attributed and measured? Are there certain context conditions that enable the observed impacts? Are the reported impacts specific to particular biomass resources?

The findings demonstrate, first, that almost half of the 304 articles reviewed analyse impacts from dedicated biomass plantations (agriculture and forestry), while few articles examine the sustainable development impacts from using agricultural and forestry residues. Second, half of the studies focus on Europe or North-America, which is surprising given the fact that the world’s Net Primary Production if mostly concentrated in the tropics. Third, the small share of studies considering impacts on sustainability in developing regions is also surprising, as research assessing global bioenergy potential commonly point to some of the countries in the global South, such as DRC or Colombia, as possible large future suppliers of biomass and biofuels. Fourth, the analysis suggests that, when considering sustainable development impacts, most studies focus on the environmental and economic categories and barely consider social impacts with the exception of food security (see accompanying figure). In fact, the reporting of whether impacts are positive, negative or neutral is also uneven across regions, with most negative impacts reported in Latin America and at the global level, while the other regions show a more balanced picture. Impacts on some economic and technological categories are persistently positive across studies and regions. Within these energy independence, direct substitution of GHG emissions from fossil fuels, market opportunities, economic activity and diversification, employment as well as different technological categories are far most often reported as positive. In contrast, most impacts in the social and environmental categories are reported largely as having negative impacts, especially on land tenure, food security, displacement of other activities, biodiversity loss, and conflict and social tension. These patterns indicate an important trade-off: that bioenergy projects may generate positive economic impacts but negative environmental and social impacts.

Finally, the review demonstrates that only 13% of the articles reviewed describe the context conditions against the category of the reported impacts, whereas 23% do not report context conditions at all. This incomplete information on context conditions makes it difficult to say anything conclusively across studies on what are the most relevant conditions triggering any of the specific impacts highlighted above. In the light of these findings, Robledo-Abad et al conclude that, in order to provide a more solid scientific basis for policy-making and governance in the field of bioenergy and sustainable development, it is necessary to (i) pursue a more stringent use of frameworks and methodologies that attribute impacts of bioenergy production on all development categories, (ii) report context conditions and criteria for attributing development impacts transparently, (iii) improve understanding of impacts of bioenergy production in developing countries with potentially favourable biophysical conditions for bioenergy and (iv) improve understanding of potential sustainable development impacts in different regions of using other bioenergy feedstock than biomass from dedicated plantations (e.g. organic waste and/or agricultural/forestry residues).

You can access the article here.


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