Biomass: boon or bane?

Duncan Macqueen's picture
Insight by 
Duncan Macqueen
31 August 2011

A new IIED briefing paper asks some hard questions about biomass investments and warns that rising demand for renewable energy sources could drive land grabs.

An issue that cannot be ignored

The world’s most ancient energy source, biomass – material from living or recently living organisms, mostly wood – is undergoing something of a renaissance. Biomass energy currently makes up 77% of the world’s renewable energy and woody biomass makes up 87% of that total.

As fossil fuel costs rise and the catastrophic implications of their continued use become ever clearer, interest in biomass as a renewable energy source and its potential to power development is growing. The use of low-carbon biomass for heat, electricity and second generation biofuels is on the rise. The International Energy Agency predicts a trebling of the share of biomass in world energy supply by 2050.


Recent reports and policy briefs have shown the massive potential for modern biomass energy systems to improve developing countries’ local energy access, generate local profits to reduce poverty and help adapt to and mitigate climate change. Local people would not only benefit from accessible energy but can also be involved in the supply chain from growing woody crops, processing and transport to the production of energy itself – as one recent Ashden Awards winner demonstrates.

Key priority: developing efficient and sustainable biomass systems

For many developing countries in Africa and South Asia there are few accessible or affordable alternatives to biomass energy. Even the most ambitious roll out plans for alternative renewable energy leave the vast majority dependent on biomass for cooking and heat for the foreseeable future. So making biomass energy systems sustainable, efficient and pro-poor seems an obvious investment priority. Certainly the potential of small-scale biomass gasifiers, used to convert the biomass to electricity, still requires significant investment in technology development.

But is this where the investment will go? Despite some progress towards integrated biomass energy strategy development in countries such as Malawi – people generally continue to rely on informal and inefficient charcoal and fuelwood suppliers for their cooking and other energy needs. This can be sustained in sparsely populated rural areas, but drives forest degradation around urban settlements. Significant revenues are often captured by elites and corrupt enforcement agents, but rarely find their way into government coffers for reinvestment in the sector.


Equally worrying are prospects for North-South or South-South foreign direct investment in biomass plantations. A new briefing paper from IIED asks some hard questions about the likely pattern of investment in biomass energy and how this might affect the poor.

In Europe, for example, national renewable energy action plans for 2020 suggest an additional requirement of 40 million oven dry metric tonnes (odmt) for new electricity generation and 50 million (odmt) for heat and cooling purposes. To put this in perspective – this greatly exceeds the entire UK available biomass production of approximately 10 million odmt per year.

While increasing demand will initially be met from suppliers in North America, Europe and Russia, there are already supply chains developing in the global South, notably Brazil. Early investments are also being made elsewhere in South America, Africa and Asia. With the South’s obvious advantages in terms of high tree growth rates in the tropics, there is a real risk that biomass energy may prove another driver of land acquisitions there. This highlights the need to carefully watch the terms of new tree plantation deals and their impacts on local populations.

Read the full briefing paper