Biomass energy - optimising its contribution to poverty reduction and ecosystem services

Lead Research Organisation: International Institute for Env and Dev
Department Name: Natural Resources Group


Biomass energy makes up 77% of the world primary renewable energy mix - or 10% of the total world energy mix (3% in OECD and 22% in non-OECD countries). As a major and increasing component of land use, biomass energy systems therefore have significant impacts on both ecosystem services and poverty. In the North, emerging opportunities for energy security through biomass are being developed fast. In the South, biomass energy is often viewed as 'inefficient and non-commercial', 'a health hazard', 'a cause of deforestation' or 'a poverty trap', often legislated to be 'illegal' as a result. Yet for many Southern countries forestry is primarily an energy business in volume and value terms, not a timber business and at a domestic level it dominates energy supply (>80% in most non-OECD countries). While a substantial proportion of biomass energy is burnt directly for domestic heat and cooking, especially in the South, there are also various conversion routes towards other forms of energy such as transferable heat, electricity, liquid biofuels or gases, developed primarily in the North. As a result of these advances in conversion technology, many of which are in commercial or near commercial stage of development, the International Energy Agencies latest predictions suggest that biomass energy is likely to make up one third of the total world energy mix by 2050. Much of this will be 'efficient', 'clean', 'sustainable and near carbon-neutral' comprising ' decent green jobs'. Clearly it is how the transition toward biomass energy takes place that will be decisive for its impacts (e.g. on health through the Products of Incomplete Combustion, poverty reduction, climate change mitigation, biodiversity conservation, watersheds and water availability etc). In order for increasing biomass energy use to have positive impacts on poverty reduction and ecosystem services, innovative interdisciplinary research is needed to map out transition pathways that optimize these impacts. This project aims to develop, through its six objectives, a North-South-South partnership and project to reshape the impact of a predicted large-scale expansion in global biomass energy use towards greater poverty reduction and maintenance of ecosystem services in developing countries. The consortium of partners represents leading biomass energy researchers from multiple disciplines. Together, a conceptual framework on biomass energy will be designed with clear indicators for 'reshaping' impacts on poverty reduction and ecosystem services. For example, in assessing the impact of future biomass energy use we will explore multi-disciplinary indicators and supply and demand factors: resource carrying capacities, demand by most needy for energy, security in access and supply, impact on food security, impact on land and resource rights, decency of work in its provision, broader social contributions, impact on ecosystem services (carbon, biodiversity and resilience, watersheds, landscape beauty) and enhancement of cultural identity. At a planning meeting, this framework and evidence of technological and economic projections for biomass energy will be discussed. Leaderships teams will form to develop research plans, analysis tools and procedures both for assessing biomass energy developments themselves, and for conducting poverty impact assessments and evaluations of carbon, biodiversity and watershed ecosystem sustainability. Visiting researchers (from India, Kenya and Malawi) will help design appropriate research, communication and impact strategies for their different contexts. Innovative business and value chain models will be analysed to test the impact of different options for transition towards increasing biomass use. Policy analyses will be formulated so that research findings can be targetted towards changing particular policies and institutional practices.


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