EME 444
Global Energy Enterprise

Biomass and Sustainability


Benefits of Energy from Biomass Resources

The Natural Resources Defense Council lists (below) the "Advantages of Biomass Energy":

  • Farmers and foresters already produce a great deal of residue. While much of it is needed to protect habitat, soil, and nutrient cycles, tens of millions of tons and more could be safely collected with the right management practices. Every year in the United States, roughly 39 million tons of crop residues go unused.
  • Unlike coal, biomass produces no harmful sulfur or mercury emissions and has significantly less nitrogen -- which means less acid rain, smog, and other toxic air pollutants.
  • Over time, if dedicated biomass is sustainably managed, converting it to energy can result in low or no net carbon emissions, provided that the carbon released is rapidly absorbed back from the atmosphere by biomass re-growth.
  • Using biofuels in our cars and airplanes can potentially produce less global warming pollution than petroleum-based fuels, and allows us to invest our energy dollars at home rather than in foreign oil.
  • Switchgrass, a promising source of biofuels, is a native, perennial prairie grass that is easier to grow responsibly than most row crops. If planted in such a way that it does not replace native habitat or take land out of food production, switchgrass and other sustainably managed energy crops have the potential to reduce erosion and nitrogen runoff, and increase soil carbon faster when mowed than when standing.
  • Many ethanol refineries are owned by farmer-cooperatives, which help preserve the economic vitality of rural communities.

Bioenergy Sustainability

In 2005, the United Nations adopted the World Summit Outcome, including a commitment "to promote the integration of the three components of sustainable development – economic development, social development and environmental protection – as interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars." (Resolution Adopted by General Assembly, page 11)

In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations issued "Biofuels and the sustainability challenge: A global assessment of sustainability issues, trends, and policies for biofuels and related feedstocks." This report examines the assessment of bioenergy different factors governing the sustainability of biomass production for biofuels, and is the most comprehensive assessment of the sustainability implications of biofuels that I have seen with a global perspective. The authors identify “tests” relevant to these pillars:

  1. Economic sustainability. This test assesses when production makes sense from an economic point of view; which stable competitive conditions would induce producers to opt for biofuels production; what impacts increased production may have on competing uses for the feedstock (primarily food and feed); and to what extent biofuels can be a reliable substitute for fossil fuels. 
  2. Environmental sustainability. This test addresses criteria “such as GHG emissions, soil stress and its ability to maintain productive capacity, available water resources, air, and water pollution and biodiversity.” 
  3. Social sustainability. This test includes considerations of rural development, gender mainstreaming, community involvement, inclusiveness of small farmers in the production processes, labor, and land rights.

These pillars are essentially the same as what is often referred to in the literature as the "3 E's" of sustainability: economics, environment, and (social) equity.

To Read Now

Download and open "Biofuels and the sustainability challenge: A global assessment of sustainability issues, trends and policies for biofuels and related feedstocks" from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Read Section 2.1 Definition of sustainable development (starting on page 67).

Take a few minutes to become familiar with the overall document (review table of contents). You will be using all of Chapter 2 to answer questions in this lesson's assignment.

Not required, but if you have time and are interested, review case studies in Boxes 2.3, 2.4, and 2.5. Very interesting, just a little too "in the weeds" for this lesson. (Okay, I thought that was funny.)