Bioenergy’s potential risks as grave as potential benefits are good

Posted on 28 September 2011

Strong social and environmental safeguards are needed to protect people and the planet from unsustainable bioenergy expansion, says conservation organization WWF.
Strong social and environmental safeguards are needed to protect people and the planet from unsustainable bioenergy expansion, says conservation organization WWF.

Bioenergy is any energy made from materials such as wood, sugarcane, corn and algae. It is often touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, and governments that have made ambitious commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions will rely heavily on bioenergy to meet these targets.

However, WWF’s Living Forests Report warns that in the absence of robust safeguards, the growing demand for bioenergy could trigger unsustainable extractive forestry in natural forests and the expansion of bioenergy crops and fast growing timber plantations that replace food production or forests and grasslands with high conservation values.

The report uses the Living Forests Model, created in collaboration with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, to examine the land use implications of two key WWF targets: reducing deforestation to near zero by 2020 and meeting 100 per cent of humanity’s energy needs with renewable sources by 2050.

“The model shows that we can protect forests and switch to renewable energy, but not if we keep going with business as usual. Bioenergy must actually replace fossil fuel,” said WWF International Bioenergy Coordinator László Máthé. “We’ll do more harm than good if we simply add bioenergy to the current energy mix.”

WWF recommends efforts to reduce overall energy consumption, including investing in energy-efficient buildings and transport systems, and using renewably generated electricity as a primary energy source.

Because bioenergy crops may compete for the same land as food crops, it will be critical to improve agriculture efficiency, growing more with the same, or less, land and water. Without these improvements, food prices could rise, making poor communities more vulnerable.

Additionally, WWF advocates that the bioenergy sector adopt voluntary standards, like those of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuel and Forest Stewardship Council, which address the most important direct impacts.

The “New Generation Plantations” framework is another valuable tool for energy companies looking into fast growing plantations. New Generation Plantations adhere to the principles of maintaining ecosystem integrity, protecting and enhancing high conservation values, ensuring effective stakeholder involvement in the development of plantations and contributing to economic development. WWF launched the “Forests and Energy” chapter of the Living Forests Report at the New Generation Plantations – Responsible Markets seminar today in London.

“This report reinforces the message that bioenergy isn’t inherently good or bad,” said Máthé. “Under the right conditions, it can help mitigate climate change and make reliable energy a reality for more people around the globe. However, under the wrong conditions, it puts even greater stress on our planet’s already overtaxed resources.”

Some feedstocks – including sugar cane, oil palm and maize – are highly water intensive. It takes roughly the same amount of water to produce one litre of liquid biofuel as needed on average to produce food for one person for one day.
© Ryan Collins / WWF-SPPO