Biomass Energy and the Poor in the Developing World

By Barnes, Douglas F.; Floor, Willem | Journal of International Affairs, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Biomass Energy and the Poor in the Developing World


Barnes, Douglas F., Floor, Willem, Journal of International Affairs


With the recent negotiations surrounding the Kyoto Protocol and the growing awareness of the limits of traditional approaches to energy, the urgent need to develop more climate-friendly energy technologies is becoming keenly appreciated worldwide. Renewable energy technologies are receiving heightened attention, and modern biomass-based energy--the use of wood, crop residues and dung as fuel--is increasingly seen as an important component of the transition to a low-carbon energy future. Several recent long-range sustainable energy studies, including the 2nd Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Development Programme's Energy After Rio and Shell Petroleum's Energy for Development, have all suggested that large-scale modern biomass might contribute to global energy supplies in the next century to a degree comparable to the use of fossil fuels today.

As a renewable energy source, biomass has several compelling features. Biomass can provide electricity on demand rather than intermittently like solar and wind power. It can be turned into liquid fuels such as alcohol or transformed into gaseous fuels through gasification. In addition, the production of biomass can be integrated with wasteland restoration through programs for rural economic development. These benefits could be realized over the next decades if sufficient research is devoted to promoting the development of related technology; such as direct combustion generation of electricity and gasification. It would also be necessary to lower the current costs of these technologies so that markets for biomass energy could expand.(1)

While several prominent global energy analyses suggest that the future prospects for biomass are bright, others have been more skeptical. They have highlighted the environmental and socioeconomic constraints, questioning whether widespread reliance on such a source would be sustainable. Advanced biomass strategies are very land-intensive compared to other energy resources,(2) creating the risk that other critical land-use options will be sacrificed, resulting in long-term adverse environmental impacts. Yet the most efficient biomass energy cycles for electric power and transportation offer substantial improvements in terms of end-use energy services per unit of land.

The wide divergence between optimistic and pessimistic views of biomass systems reflects the prevailing uncertainties about how they relate to the larger energy picture. Technological, ecological and socioeconomic uncertainties make it difficult to develop and commercialize biomass in a sustainable manner. However, the significant environmental pressures to redirect the global energy economy away from high carbon-based fuels encourage policy choices and institutional commitments that give greater importance to modern biomass solutions in the near-term.

In addition to the potential use of biomass energy as a modern energy source, it is equally if not more important to recognize that whatever its merits, biomass is a major source of energy for people in developing countries today. More than two billion people around the world, predominately the rural and the urban poor in the Third World, use biomass fuels to meet their daily needs. In many countries--especially Sub-Saharan Africa--biomass fuels account for over 80 percent of a country's total energy consumption.(3) Much of this "unnoticed" energy is collected rather than purchased in rural areas. However, unofficial figures on the commercial trade of fuelwood and charcoal in Africa estimate it at about $5 billion a year.(4)

Fossil fuel consumption does have its share of drawbacks. While an important source of energy for the rural poor throughout the developing world, biomass fuels burned in indoor stoves without proper ventilation, for example, cause significant levels of indoor air pollution--a major cause of disease and even premature death. …

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