The report urges developing nations to take advantage of biomass fuels such as wood and charcoal and move towards green economies in which “the poor benefit from producing sustainable, clean energy”.
Biomass refers to any organic matter of either plant (trees, waste agricultural crops etc.) or animal origin. IIED predicts biomass will account for 30% of global energy by 2050, up from the present 10%. Austria is one of the countries taking most advantage from it, where 80% of new homes are equipped with wood pellet boilers.
With recent technologies, wood can be converted into liquid and gaseous fuel or produce wood bundles or pellets to be gasified to make electricity.
“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 legalize biomass fuels as a source of energy and enact policies that make supply chains sustainable.”
But how can using wood be sustainable? The report claims 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.
It also says that biomass also produces lower emissions of greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. According to the United Nations food and agriculture organisation, worldwide, the use of biomass for heat and power could save more than 1 gigatonne of carbon (GtC) annually by 2030, Mr. MacQueen told Just Means. “The co-firing of biomass with coal could save nearly 0.5 GtC per year at fairly modest costs”, he added.
Wouldn’t an increased use of biomass drive deforestation? MacQueen doesn’t think so. “The beauty of wood is that for every log that is harvested a new one can be grown”, MacQueen said. But he points out that they people exploring biomass need to have an incentive to manage the forest sustainably and be legally encouraged to replace and grow new trees with proper training. Besides, the law needs to be enforced to discourage illegal loggers and to support those who produce biomass legally.
He added that combining trees with agricultural crops can actually enhance fertility for those crops by fixing nitrogen, controlling erosion, among other benefits.
The fact that biomass fuel production is labor intensive could also generate jobs and potential health hazards can be offset with better processing and stove technologies. “There are many ‘improved stove’ programs across the world seeking to develop locally produced, culturally adapted stoves that improve the efficiency of wood use and cut down air pollution which causes health hazards”, said Duncan. He points to Practical Action and Ashden Awards for more information on better stoves.