Burning Biomass: A Sustainable Energy Option for the 21st Century?

Billions of people worldwide still burn woody biomass for household, commercial, and industrial purposes. During the F&ES-based Forest Dialogue's recent TFD Week, a group of experts explored how this ancient energy resource can become a more sustainable and climate-friendly energy option for the 21st century.
biomass panel mg
To many, the burning of wood and other organic material to produce energy seems more a practice from a bygone era than a modern solution to humankind’s power needs, says Gerhard Dieterle, leader of the World Bank’s Forestry Team.
Yet across the world billions of people still burn woody biomass for household, commercial, and industrial purposes. As the global population grows and access to fossil fuels declines this burning will likely increase, Dieterle told a Yale audience last month.
“This is not a technology of yesterday. It is also a technology of the future,” said Dieterle, who was part of an expert panel discussion on biomass hosted by The Forests Dialogue (TFD), an F&ES-based program that provides a platform for stakeholders from around the world to discuss solutions to forestry challenges
The panel discussion on biomass was a centerpiece of The Forests Dialogue’s annual TFD Week, during which senior international leaders from the public and private sectors address a variety of forestry-related issues. Sustainable biomass, in particular, has been identified by TFD’s steering committee as an issue requiring more discussion across stakeholder groups.
We need to restore [the biomass sector] to something that is sustainable and which is an integral part of economies in developing countries.
— Gerhard Dieterle
While there are some well-known challenges associated with the burning of biomass — including potential climate implications and public health, particularly in developing countries  — it still offers attractive opportunities worldwide, Dieterle said. And if conducted appropriately, and sustainably, biomass can actually help mitigate the effects of climate change by offsetting some of the global demand for fossil fuels. 
“We cannot abandon this,” Dieterle added. “We need to restore [the sector] to something that is sustainable and which is an integral part of economies in developing countries.”
“It is a very complex issue,” said Gary Dunning, Executive Director of The Forests Dialogue. “There are different tracks you can take when you talk about biomass. You can talk about it from the production end, and you can talk about it at the consumption end. You can talk about it at the industrial scale, and you can talk about it at the household scale.”
To begin the conversation, TFD convened a forum that included Dieterle; Julia Marton-Lefevre, a Yale Global Fellow and former Director General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN); Cécile Ndjebet, of the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests; Ivone Namikawa, forest sustainability officer for Klabin, a Brazilian paper manufacturer; Lennart Ackzell, senior advisor for the Federation of Swedish Family Forest Owners; Milagre Nuvunga, co-founder and Executive Director of the MICAIA Foundation, a Mozambique-based nonprofit that empowers local communities; and Miriam Prochnow, public policy coordinator for the Association for the Preservation of the Upper Itajaí Valley (Apremavi), a Brazil-based nonprofit. 
Members of the panel agreed that biomass should remain an important part of the larger strategy to meet global energy demands in the coming decades, as long as the sector is managed sustainably and tenure rights for local growers are protected.
Marton-Lefevre, the former director of IUCN, now chairs an advisory board for the Sustainable Biomass Partnership, a coalition of businesses that is examining these very questions, particularly related to the burning of wood pellets. A key to achieving potential opportunities — and addressing concerns about biomass in some circles — will be clear communications across sectors and stakeholder groups, she said. 
“If [biomass] doesn’t go hand-in-hand with sustainable forest management, where we re-plant and see the results, of course it would be terrible,” she said. “Right now we’re trying to understand the issues.”
Across rural Africa, the burning of biomass is simply a way of life, said Ndjebet. In communities across the continent, she said, women spend hours each day gathering wood, a custom that provides not just income but enables these women to feed their families.
For the sector to remain environmentally sustainable and economically fair, she said, will require greater organization and tenure rights that protect local women. “We just can’t close our eyes to that reality,” she said.
In Brazil, Namikawa said, past initiatives to expand biomass production made profit the most important consideration. For the sector to succeed in a way that protects local communities going forward, she said, it must also consider social and environmental costs.
Ackzell agreed that land tenure is essential to sustainable forest management worldwide. But if the sector succeeds, he said, it can help humankind shift to a post-fossil fuel economy.
“We have the future in our sector,” he said. “There is no other sector that can contribute so substantially to that shift. It’s an amazing opportunity.”
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842