The paper reviews the current knowledge on the use of biomass for non-food purposes, critically discusses its environmental sustainability implications, and describes the needs for further research, thus enabling a more balanced policy approach. The life-cylce wide impacts of the use of biomass for energy and material purposes derived from either direct crop harvest or residuals indicate that biomass based substitutes have a different, not always superior environmental performance than comparable fossil based products. Cascading use, i.e. when biomass is used for material products first and the energy content is recovered from the end-of-life products, tends to provide a higher environmental benefit than primary use as fuel. Due to limited global land resources, non-food biomass may only substitute for a certain share of non-renewables. If the demand for non-food biomass, especially fuel crops and its derivates, continues to grow this will inevitably lead to an expansion of global arable land at the expense of natural ecosystems such as savannas and tropical rain forests. Whereas the current aspirations and incentives to increase the use of non-food biomass are intended to counteract climate change and environmental degradation, they are thus bound to a high risk of problem shifting and may even lead to a global deterioration of the environment. Although the "balanced approach" of the European Union's biomass strategy may be deemed a good principle, the concrete targets and implementation measures in the Union and countries like Germany should be revisited. Likewise, countries like Brazil and Indonesia may revisit their strategies to use their natural resources for export or domestic purposes. Further research is needed to optimize the use of biomass within and between regions.
Stefan Bringezu, Stephan Ramesohl, Karin Arnold, Manfred Fischedick,
Justus von Geibler, Christa Liedtke, Helmut Schütz:
Towards a Sustainable Biomass Strategy
What we know and what we should know
Wuppertal Paper no. 163 (June 2007)