Neglected energy source can fuel giant leap forward in developing nations

Developing nations have an untapped resource that could enable them to fight poverty, create jobs, gain energy independence and help to both limit and adapt to climate change, says a report published today (10 March) by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

News, 09 March 2011

It urges such nations to take advantage of their dependence on biomass fuels — such as wood and charcoal — and move towards green economies in which the poor benefit from producing sustainable, clean energy.

The report points out that reliance on biomass fuels is set to treble from 10 to 30 percent of global energy consumption by 2050. Advanced new technologies can convert wood to liquid and gaseous fuel or can produce wood bundles or pellets that can be ‘gasified’ to make electricity.

While developed nations are taking this seriously, developing nations are generally lag behind, and treat biomass energy as traditional and dirty, a health hazard, poverty trap and threat to forests. But the report shows how they can turn their already heavy biomass dependence into an advantage.

Biomass energy is highly flexible and can be readily converted into all the major energy carriers (heat, electricity, liquid and gas). This means it can meet many of diverse energy needs: from irrigation pumps and illumination, through agricultural processing and refrigeration to transport and telecommunication.

"Many governments in developing nations dissuade people from burning wood or charcoal as fuel as they think it is backward, but this just criminalises poor people for their energy needs and does little to limit deforestation," says Duncan Macqueen, a senior researcher in IIED’s natural resources group and co-author of the report. "Instead government should embrace and legalise biomass fuels as a source of energy and enact policies that make supply chains sustainable."

Macqueen explains more in an IIED opinion paper that will also be published on 10 March.

The report shows that if nations manage their forests and ensure replanting happens in a way that is sensitive to food security needs, biomass can be a renewable and sustainable source of energy.

Biomass also produces lower emissions of greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. As biomass energy is labour intensive across the whole supply chain it can offer employment options to reduce poverty, while the potential health hazards can be easily solved by better processing and stove technologies.

"Fossil fuels are running out and threatening our global climate in the process, so the hunt is on for greener more sustainable energy," says co-author Sibel Korhaliller. "Developing nations that get serious about biomass energy and end any historic prejudices against such fuels will greatly serve their national interests. This will need a new approach that legalises and secures sustainable production by and for the millions of poor people who both produce and depend on biomass for energy."

The report outlines ways for developing nations to enact policies to capitalise on the potential for biomass fuels to tackle climate change and poverty, and create energy security, jobs and sustainable economies.

Download the report "Bundles of energy: The case for renewable biomass energy"

Download the accompanying opinion paper by Duncan Macqueen