The electricity sector has been undergoing a remarkable transformation in recent years thanks to the growth in solar PV and wind, the new stars in the renewables world.
But step back and consider the whole energy system, and you will find that the role of modern bioenergy in turning on the lights, providing energy to industries and buildings, or powering cars and trucks is equal to all other renewables put together – including hydropower, wind, and solar energy.
The reason is simple. Electricity accounts for just a fifth of global energy use while modern bioenergy (which excludes the traditional use of biomass, such as for cooking in developing countries) is the only renewable resource today that can supply energy to all end-use sectors. In fact, the most recent analysis from the International Energy Agency shows that modern bioenergy will lead the growth in renewable energy consumption for the next five years.
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Yet, the role of modern bioenergy in decarbonising the global energy system is not widely recognised, which is a major blind spot in the global energy debate. The fact is that modern bioenergy is a sustainable solution to address the global climate challenge while contributing to energy diversification and security. But in order to achieve these targets, its deployment must accelerate.
To do so, the challenges of bioenergy must first be addressed. Bioenergy has a controversial reputation. The industry has been blamed for deforestation in tropical regions or favouring fuel instead of food production.
But its reality is much more complex, and each of its various supply chains need to be assessed separately. In a nutshell, only modern bioenergy that reduces lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions while avoiding unacceptable social, environmental, and economic impacts, including reducing concerns about land use change, has a future role in a sustainable energy system.
Solutions exist. Robust sustainability measures and right policies to foster technology innovation are needed. Finland, for instance, has shown how a sustainable and environmentally conscious bioenergy industry can rise from properly planned policies. In fact, approximately 80 % of renewables in Finland is bioenergy. In addition to industry processes and power and heat production, there is an increasing share of biofuels in transportation as well as increasing opportunities in other bio-economy products.
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The essence in sustainable use of forest resources in Finland is the national legislation, strong institutions and efficient use of raw materials. Finnish forest legislation sets minimum requirements for sustainable forest use and harvesting as well as obligation for reforestation.
Because of well-managed forests, Finnish forests are actually growing even with increasing harvestings. Efficient use of raw materials means, that the primary reason for harvestings is not bioenergy. The wood harvested from forests is mainly used for higher value products, such as timber products, pulp and paper and increasingly also other bioeconomy products where wood replaces the use of fossil oil. Residues and wastes of these processes are used for bioenergy.
Reaching the full potential of modern bioenergy would complement the success already achieved for wind and solar technologies. Modern bioenergy can significantly strengthen the renewables portfolio and – most importantly – help establishment a more sustainable and secure energy system. This is something the world very much needs.
Kimmo Tiilikainen is minister of the environment, energy and housing of Finland, and Fatih Birol is executive director of the International Energy Agency.