Bioenergy for the energy transition Ensuring sustainability and overcoming barriers


Globally, bioenergy remains the largest renewable energy resource, contributing to around 12% of
final energy consumption (see Figure 1.1). It can be used for power generation and end uses, including
heating, cooking and transport (see Figure 1.2). Currently, more than 80% of bioenergy is used for cooking and heating in buildings and industry. Globally, in 2020, bioenergy provided around 20% of
total heat consumption, with 8% from modern forms of bioenergy and 12% from traditional use of
biomass (IEA, 2021a; IRENA, 2022a).

Traditional and inefficient use of solid biofuels causes negative health, socio-economic and environmental consequences. It generates a high level of health-damaging air pollutants, inducing acute ambient and indoor air pollution when combined with poor ventilation. This is considered a major cause for around 3.8 million premature deaths every year, mostly in low-, lower- and middle-income countries (WHO, 2021). Women and children are disproportionately affected by these practices, as they take more responsibility for cooking and have more exposure to indoor air pollution. They are also tasked with the collection of biomass such as firewood or agriculture residues, which could be very time-consuming. In this case, it takes women’s time away from other working or economic earning activities and takes children’s time from education. For this portion of bioenergy, attention focuses on replacing traditional use of bioenergy with clean fuels and modern technologies. While Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) includes a target to achieve universal access to clean cooking fuels by 2030, progress has been slow, with a global annual improvement rate of around 0.2-1.8% from 2010 to 2019, far from the 3% required. Sub-Saharan Africa, home to more than half of the global population without access to clean cooking in 2019, has seen the least progress (IEA, IRENA, UNSD, World Bank and WHO, 2021).


Bioenergy sustainability is a complex topic. In principle, bioenergy use can provide various benefits,
such as avoiding GHG emissions by replacing fossil fuels in power generation, heating, transport and
industry. It can also bring environmental and socio-economic benefits such as land restoration and job
creation and improved health from clean cooking. However, these benefits can only be realised under
specific circumstances. If not managed well, bioenergy supply chains and use could incur negative
environmental, social or economic impacts beyond the energy sector due to their strong interactions with a number of important sectors such as agriculture, forestry, rural development and waste management. Bioenergy’s impacts on land-use changes are highly context-, location- and scale-dependent (IPCC, 2018). For example, increased bioenergy supply could cause land-use changes from the current purpose (e.g. food production or ecological service) to energy use, raising potential concerns about issues such as food security or biodiversity loss. However, there is also scope for potential benefits by using bioenergy by-products to improve soil quality, plantations for phytoremediation to improve water quality and agroforestry to increase biodiversity (see Figure 2.1). Additionally, the potential for increased carbon sequestration through improved land stewardship measures is considered to be substantial. Evaluating the synergies and trade-offs and the myriad issues related to land-use governance is essential to better understanding the future role of biomass.

This chapter focuses on the major sustainability challenges and concerns related to the scale of bioenergy deployment depicted in the 1.5°C Scenario and other low-emission and net zero scenarios, in which large-scale production of feedstocks from agriculture and forestry residues would be a core component. It is important to note that while waste-based and some forms of advanced bioenergy have important roles to play in achieving the targets, they may not share similar issues with land-based bioenergy. This chapter identifies several common lines of inquiry but does not aim to distil a single clear narrative for all, as the issues can only be fully understood when placed in specific contexts.

Strengthening energy security with local biomass resources In some regions, bioenergy is deemed the most accessible renewable energy source. For example, woody biomass from surrounding manmade forests may be the most sustainable way to heat households in rural Japan, where kerosene has been the main fuel (Goh et al., 2020). Transforming traditional bioenergy systems into modern ones is an option to ensure energy security in regions like sub-Saharan Africa that avoids shifting to imported fossil fuels. For countries that are large agricultural producers and where biomass can be sourced sustainably, bioenergy may have an important role in fuel price control and energy security.

A specific bioenergy production model may be considered sustainable in one location but not in another
due to, for example, climatic and biophysical differences. Socio-economic factors like demography,
politics (e.g. when involving land ownership) and culture also determine the suitability of bioenergy
deployment in a particular site. There are place-specific and temporal elements, i.e. the growth and harvesting rate of biomass, to be accounted for in the carbon balance of bioenergy systems. In some
cases, the governance framework for biofuel inputs may not be able to capture all potential issues that
matter to the local community in production countries, depending on each country’s local enforcement.


In recent decades, the global trade of bioenergy has increased due to the unbalanced distribution of
biomass resources and demands. Major bioenergy commodities include wood pellets, biodiesel and
bioethanol. The European Union is the main destination due to clear strategies to substitute fossil
fuels with renewables, and targets on biomass for heating and liquid biofuels for transport. Bioenergy
exporting countries diverse, for example, Argentina, China and Indonesia are all major biodiesel exporters but use different biomass feedstocks. A similar situation applies to solid biomass exported from North America and Southeast Asia (see Figure 3.1). Given the current status and likely trends in the energy transition, international bioenergy trade may be linked to sustainability concerns Therefore, policies and measures need to be in place to improve governance. Based on available data, this chapter analyses the status of major bioenergy commodities (biodiesel, bioethanol and solid biomass), trade among major importing and exporting countries and regions, and possible links with sustainability concerns. It then proposes policy options to improve the governance and practices of bioenergy trade.


The international trade of biodiesel has changed significantly in the past few years, as shown
in Figure 3.2. The trade of biodiesel in 2019 was estimated at around 4.2 billion litres, accounting for
around 10% of total global production. Three types of biodiesels, categorised by feedstock, were traded
in relatively large volumes compared to biodiesel made of other feedstocks, i.e. soy-based biodiesel from Argentina, palm-based biodiesel from Indonesia and Malaysia, and used cooking oil (UCO)-based
biodiesel from China. The exported volume of these three types of biodiesels in 2019 was about 90%
of the total global trade volume (IEA, 2020a).

The situation in the United States was the opposite: exports to the country totalled more than 2 billion litres in 2016 but then almost disappeared in 2018 as the United States imposed anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties on biodiesel from Argentina and Indonesia over the next five years. Meanwhile,
China recorded substantial volumes of both exports to Europe and imports from Indonesia and Malaysia
in 2018 and 2019 (see Figure 3.2). As the country does not have a surplus of vegetable oil production
(it is a net importer of vegetable oils), UCO, also known as “gutter oil” collected from oil brokers, was
used to produce biodiesel (Chase, 2020). The UCO-based biodiesel was largely exported to Europe
and the volume grew significantly throughout 2016-2020 (see Figure 3.2).


As the sustainability of bioenergy is complex and highly context-specific, a policy framework is necessary to ensure that bioenergy plays its role in achieving the 1.5°C target effectively and appropriately. The policy framework should include sustainability-based target setting and long-term planning, cross-sector co-ordination for bioenergy, and sustainability governance supported by regulations and certificate schemes, as well as integration of bioenergy policy making with the SDGs (see Figure 4.1)

A long-term strategy for bioenergy development built upon a sound understanding of sustainability
can provide a consistent policy signal to guide policy makers and build the confidence of investors and
project developers. Long-term planning could enable improved land management instead of focusing on
short-term gains from rapid extraction of biomass or unsustainable intensification overusing chemicals
and water. This demands comprehensive monitoring systems on a landscape scale. Bioenergy targets and policies should include consideration of socio-economic dynamics – e.g. labour availability, migration and energy access, especially in the context of rural development – before setting targets for large-scale bioenergy production (Goh et al., 2018). Engagement with local stakeholders to seek suitable land-use and business models is necessary to ensure bioenergy development is beneficial
for communities.

Bioenergy policy making requires substantial cross-sectorial collaboration between agriculture, forestry,
industry, environment, rural development and energy to align with broader plans beyond the energy
sectors. Complex institutional structures and misalignments in dealing with sustainability issues across
multiple policy domains have been key barriers in many countries. For example, energy agencies usually examine bioenergy purely from an energy balance perspective. Agriculture and forestry departments emphasise bioenergy as one of the options for rural development. Environmental ministries set rules for conservation beyond just carbon but may neglect local livelihoods. Industrial divisions focus solely on downstream development with little understanding of feedstock supply-related issues. Sustainable bioenergy development lies in the authorities of all these departments, which are usually lacking proper co-ordination or consistency.


The development of bioenergy in Southeast Asia has been largely motivated by potential economic
opportunities and other benefits such as energy security and climate change mitigation. Since the 2000s,
numerous bioenergy projects with ambitious targets have been proposed. Some concerns about these
projects have been raised due to their impacts on the environment, societies and economies, despite
their potential benefits (Pratiwi and Juerges, 2020). Policies and targets were then adjusted to take more factors into consideration. Importantly, the role and implications of bioenergy in the region were re-examined beyond the energy sector as it has close linkages to agriculture and forestry. Therefore, to understand the sustainability challenges of bioenergy in the region, one must place these in the larger context of the land-based sectors.

Biofuels from under-utilised and degraded land in Indonesia A potential strategy to expand biomass supply is to actively use under-utilised and degraded land for bioenergy production. The strategy has been discussed in Indonesia, which has abundant non-forested land that is currently not actively used for agriculture. Figure 5.1 provides an overview of non-forested land that is currently not used for agriculture in some Southeast Asian countries. Roughly more than 93 million ha of non-forested land is not under intensive agricultural use, with about one-third of that located in Indonesia. Utilising these land resources may effectively avoid carbon stock loss from forest conversion in comparison to the expected business-as-usual scenario. Also, active management, if done properly, can help to avoid further land degradation and potentially replenish lost carbon stock.


In addition to sustainability concerns, bioenergy deployment faces various barriers. Some of these
barriers cut across bioenergy applications, such as biomass, biogas and biomethane for heating and
power generation, and liquid biofuels for transport. This chapter focuses on the main cross-cutting
barriers and policy measures to address them.

As is the case for other renewable energy technologies, a number of barriers (see Figure 6.1) also inhibit
more widespread deployment of bioenergy. At a global level, the main barriers include the higher cost
of bioenergy compared to fossil fuel options and a distorted energy market due to unlevied externalities
of fossil fuel use. In addition, weak supply chains are unable to provide a stable feedstock supply, a
situation that will significantly hinder the development of bioenergy industry if policy measures are
not put in place. Technology readiness is another barrier, especially for advanced technologies such
as liquid biofuels for aviation, and biomaterial used for chemical industries. Those technologies may
play an important role in achieving the 1.5°C Scenario, but presently remain in their early stages. Some
barriers also link into each other, such as policy uncertainty and difficulty attracting investment. Weak
supply chains also can be a reason for high production costs, which are impacted by feedstock costs.

Political and institutional barriers Policy uncertainty has been a main barrier to developing renewables, including bioenergy, due to the lack of long-term policy commitments and targets. This uncertainty usually translates into weak policy attention and ambition in national energy strategies and planning or frequent changes in relevant policies and regulations. It may impede investment in bioenergy supply chains and pertinent infrastructures that need a long time to make a return. For some uses of advanced bioenergy, creating the markets and demand for product also takes time and therefore requires long-term policy signals.


Around one-third of the global population (approximately 2.4 billion people) rely on inefficient stoves
and traditional biomass for heating and cooking. These practices usually involve very low-efficiency
stoves or open fires fuelled by traditional forms of biomass (e.g. charcoal, firewood, dung, wood), kerosene or coal, especially in rural areas. The majority of the affected population lives in the developing world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region that faces the greatest challenge, with the population without access to clean cooking significantly increasing the last 20 years.

Given these negative consequences of inefficient use of biomass, SDG 7.1 aims to ensure universal
access to clean cooking solutions by 2030. Replacing traditional biomass use and ensuring universal
access to clean cooking solutions have formed parts of the global effort. However, the progress is
slow and needs to be accelerated (see Figure 7.1) (IEA, IRENA, UNSD, World Bank and WHO, 2021).

Transforming the inefficient use of bioenergy for cooking and heating with efficient cookstoves and
modern fuels is an essential pillar of the energy transition. This will involve using renewables such as
renewable-based electricity, biogas, sustainable biomass (e.g. pellets and charcoal briquettes produced
from agricultural and forestry residues) and improved cookstoves that could mitigate the negative environmental and health impacts. Available approaches depend on local factors.


In 2020, the building sector accounted for around 31% of total final energy consumption. A majority
of energy in buildings is used to provide heating services, including water heating, space heating and
cooking. Most of current heating is based on fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, causing air pollution and GHG emissions. Modern bioenergy for heat in buildings includes modern forms of biomass (e.g. pellets), biogas, biomethane and others. Bioenergy-based heating systems can integrate with existing district heating networks and provide renewable heat for multiple buildings or even a whole district. Efficient biomass boilers for single houses are also common technologies.

Modern and sustainably sourced bioenergy for heating buildings has an essential role in the energy
transition (see Figure 8.1). According to IRENA’s 1.5°C Scenario, the consumption of modern biomass for heating buildings would need to increase to 18.2 EJ by 2050, tripling the current level (IRENA, 2021b). From 2021-2026, China, India and the European Union will contribute to a large share of the increased bioenergy demand for heat in buildings (IEA, 2021a).

for heating applications in 2019 (Bioenergy Europe, 2021). The European Union and North America are
major producers, accounting for more than half of the world total pellet production in 2020. China is
another main producing country. It produced around 20 million tonnes of pellet in 2020, accounting
for around 30% of the world total (Bioenergy Europe, 2021; Wang, 2021).


In 2020, electricity generation contributed almost 40% of global total energy-related emissions.
Renewables accounted for 29% of global total electricity generation, most of which comes from
hydropower, wind and solar PV (see Figure 9.1). Bioenergy only contributed to around 2% of total power capacity and 3% of electricity generation (around 718 terawatt hours). Bioenergy electricity doubled from 2009 to 2019. China, Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union have the largest installed capacity, accounting for more than three-quarters of the global total. Within Europe, Finland, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom have the largest installed capacity.

Biogas generation accounted for a smaller share, with global installed capacity reaching 20 gigawatts
(GW), doubling the level in 2010. Brazil, China, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the
United States accounted for more than 86% of total biogas installed capacity in 2020. Germany alone
contributed 37% of the global total, followed by the United States (11%), the United Kingdom (9%),
Italy (7%) and China (4%). Two-thirds of global biogas production is used for power generation: half
for electricity generation only and another half for CHP (IRENA, IEA and REN21, 2020). Liquid biofuels have also been used for power generation. Almost all of these plants are located in
EU member countries and the United States. Italy and Sweden contributed 80% of the global total,
followed by Germany (10%), the United States (5%) and Belgium (2%).

Moreover, BECCS in power generation and industry would need to deliver negative emissions needed
in achieving the 1.5°C target. BECCS has a number of different technology pathways (see Box 9.2).
According to IRENA’s 1.5°C Scenario, BECCS would need to contribute 14% (4.5 GtCO2) of the total
needed carbon emission abatement by 2050 (see Figure 9.3). From 2021 to 2050, BECCS for power
and heat plants would need to remove 36 GtCO2 (cumulative) (IRENA, 2021b).

While there are a few BECCS projects based on ethanol production and dozens planned and in
development, mainly in the United States, bioenergy power plants based BECCS still remain at the
demonstration stage with few projects in the pipeline. In Sweden, the Stockholm Exergi BECCS project
plans to be in operation by 2025. This project is based on biomass CHP and designed to capture a
maximum of 0.8 MtCO2 per year. In the United Kingdom, the largest biomass power plant, Drax Power
Station in Yorkshire, announced its plan to build a BECCS facility by 2027, capturing more than 4 MtCO2 per year. In the United States, Clean Energy Systems’ BECCS project is located in California’s Central Valley. It aims to capture 0.32 MtCO2 per year and to be in operation in 2025 (Global CCS Institute, 2021).


Industry is the largest energy-consuming sector, accounting for around 38% of global total final
energy consumption in 2020. Three main energy-intense industries – iron and steel, chemicals, and
cement – contributed to around 44% of the industrial sector’s total energy demand and 70% of its
total CO2 emissions (IEA, 2021b). In 2020, biomass contributed to around 7% of the total final energy
consumption of industries. Biomass has three main uses in industry: as biomass-based CHP to provide
heating and electricity, for industrial process heating, and as feedstock to replace fossil fuels – for
example, in the chemical sector

Bioenergy for industrial process heat and industrial feedstock will need to increase significantly in
the coming decades to achieve the energy transition. These biomass uses for the decarbonisation of
industry would need billions in investment every year in the next three decades (IRENA, 2021b). The
main opportunities include bioenergy-based CHP to provide heat and power for industries, biomass-based feedstock for the chemicals sector (such as bioplastics and biomethanol production), biomass
to provide high-temperature heat for cement, as well as feedstock to replace coke and coal in iron and
steel in the short term (see Figure 10.1).

Bioenergy-based CHP will need to continue expanding to provide sustainable low-cost renewable heat
for biomass-based industries, especially in developing countries, where production of these industries
is likely to keep increasing. In rural and developing areas, efficient and sustainable biomass and biogas
can be an essential facilitator of economic activities providing heat for drying, distillation, dairy and
cottage industries. For example, Sri Lanka’s Elpitiya Plantations PLC, a leading tea producing company,
uses estate-grown biomass for the thermal energy required for tea and rubber production processes
and operates with 100% renewable electricity (IRENA Coalition for Action, 2021). In Lugazi (Uganda),
the largest industry, Sugar Corporation of Uganda, installed bagasse-fired cogeneration plants with a
capacity of 9.5 MW (IRENA, 2022d). In Colombia, biomass combined with solar energy has enormous
potential as a renewable source for drying coffee (Manrique et al., 2020).


In 2020, the transport sector accounted for a quarter of global final energy consumption and around
21% of global CO2 emissions. Road transport consumed around 80% of total energy demand, followed
by shipping (11%) and aviation (8%). Fossil oil dominated the transport fuels in all subsectors. Bioenergy accounted for around 3% of global transport fuel demand, mainly in road transport (see Figure 11.1) (IEA, 2021b). Bioenergy use for transport includes bioethanol, biodiesel and other diesel substitute fuels (HEFA or hydrogenated vegetable oil [HVO]), biomethane, and other biofuels. Because they can be used for combustion vehicles with limited technical changes, liquid biofuels are more available to decarbonise the current vehicle stock compared to other solutions (e.g. electric, hydrogen fuel cell). The consumption of liquid biofuels for road transport grew at around 5% per year from 2014 to 2019 and was concentrated in Europe and North and South America. However, due to the COVID pandemic, biofuels consumption experienced a 5% decline in 2020 (IEA, 2021d; REN21, 2021).

Government-funded RD&D programmes are being used to help with the development of novel biofuel
technologies. For example, the United States has an extensive research effort co-ordinated by the
Biotechnologies Office to support the research related to advanced biofuel (CRS, 2022). Loan guarantees are also provided to offset the risk of biofuel projects. In the United States, the Biorefinery Assistance Program provides up to USD 250 million loan guarantees to develop, construct and retrofit projects (USDA, 2021c). Sustainability governance supported by regulations, certification schemes, sustainability targets and co-ordinated planning is necessary to improve the biofuels supply chain and minimise the negative impacts on environmental, social and economic aspects.


The growth in the use of biomass materials is an essential component of the energy transition aligning
with the 1.5°C Scenario, with biomass reducing GHG emissions by replacing fossil fuels and also by
opening up the possibility for linking bioenergy with CCS. The contribution from modern bioenergy
to the demand for energy in all end uses and for chemical feedstocks will need to increase in the
following decades. The main required developments are reductions in the traditional use of biomass by 2030, increases in modern bioenergy used to heat buildings, more bioenergy use in industry and biofuels for transport (road, aviation and shipping). In addition, strong growth in the use of biomass for non-energy purposes, especially to replace fossil fuel feedstocks for chemical production, is needed. Although there is more direct use of solid biomass as a fuel to produce heat, there is also stronger growth in bioenergy heat produced and distributed via district heating systems and biogas and biomethane.


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