New research from the Stockholm Environment Institute suggests there is huge untapped potential in biomass as a source of energy – but as Dr Eric Kemp-Benedict explains developing this will require careful planning and political will.
Climate change poses enormous challenges: to keep temperature increases under 2°C, we must dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and to do so, we will need to transform the world’s energy systems and wean our economies off fossil fuels.
This will be hard, and it will be costly, but it also creates extraordinary opportunities.
It’s a chance to innovate, to explore options we might’ve missed in times of cheap, plentiful coal and oil and no climate worries. And one of the things we’re discovering is the huge untapped potential of a resource we’ve used for millennia: biomass.
In many countries, coal-fired plants have been retrofitted to burn wood; in Sweden, biomass surpassed oil in 2009 as the No. 1 energy source. Developing nations such as India have focused on using biomass more cleanly and efficiently, making briquettes, for example, from agricultural and forestry wastes.
Most notably, we’ve seen a surge in production of liquid biofuels from sugarcane, maize and other sources. To the extent that these projects encourage deforestation, compete with food production, or deplete scarce water supplies, they’re unsustainable. But there are also great successes, especially with sugarcane, that could be widely emulated. The best projects don’t just make ethanol, but also use the fibrous residues to generate energy. Some are going one step farther, and making biogas, specialized chemicals and bio-based materials that can replace non-renewable materials, such as bio-plastics.
Renewable but limited
This is the context in which we launched a research project to explore the potential for biomass to play a much larger role in our future economy. Our study was part of a package on low-carbon technologies in a resource-constrained world, produced by the Stockholm Environment Institute in partnership with the business initiative 3C (Combat Climate Change).
The challenge with biomass is that, though renewable, it’s not unlimited: it is constrained by land and water availability, by soils’ ability to support plant growth, and by the need to return some biomass to the land to retain nutrients and soil moisture. There are competing uses – especially food production – and concerns over water supplies and carbon emissions mean we can’t just keep expanding agricultural land, or boost yields through unsustainable irrigation and other practices.
So we built scenarios to evaluate our choices: business as usual, a strong emphasis on climate mitigation, a strong emphasis on food production, or both – what we called a “Sustainability Transition”, in which we’d aim not just to use biomass for food and energy, but also for industrial feedstocks and more.
We found that no scenario is perfect, but there could be great benefits from taking a broader view of biomass in our economy. It could spur innovation, drive investment, and perhaps accelerate efforts to boost agricultural yields, and to do so sustainably and in a way that is accessible to the world’s poor.
Our scenario looked only out to 2035, and we don’t expect a bio-based economy to take hold by then. But on a small scale, it’s already happening. In early April, for example, Chemical & Engineering News reported on four companies that are using biomass-derived chemicals to produce industrial materials – from ingredients for polyesters made from succinic acid (“spirit of amber”), to acrylic acid for paints, detergents, etc., made from sugar.
Building a bio-based economy will require political will, significant public- and private-sector investments in agricultural and industrial research, and a market that embraces biomass-based products. Companies can help close the gap by finding a niche within the value chain. And if the public sector encourages the use of bio-materials through research and development investment and purchasing, businesses can take this on as a challenge, and thrive on it.
About the SEI:
The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) is an international nonprofit research organization that has been engaged in environment and development issues at the local, national, regional and global policy levels for more than 20 years. Its goal is to bring about change for sustainable development by bridging science and policy. SEI has seven centres worldwide, in Stockholm; Oxford and York, U.K.; the United States; Bangkok, Thailand; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Tallinn, Estonia. The author of this article is a senior scientist in SEI’s U.S. Centre.