Energy system overview
More efforts needed
Authors and contributors
IEA (2022), Bioenergy, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/bioenergy, License: CC BY 4.0
About this report
Bioenergy is a source of energy from the organic material that makes up plants, known as biomass. Biomass contains carbon absorbed by plants through photosynthesis. When this biomass is used to produce energy, the carbon is released during combustion and simply returns to the atmosphere, making modern bioenergy a promising near zero-emission fuel.
Modern bioenergy is the largest source of renewable energy globally, accounting for 55% of renewable energy and over 6% of global energy supply. The Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario sees a rapid increase in the use of bioenergy to displace fossil fuels by 2030. Use of modern bioenergy has increased on average by about 7% per year between 2010 and 2021, and is on an upward trend. More efforts are needed to accelerate modern bioenergy deployment to get on track with the Net Zero Scenario, which sees deployment increase by 10% per year between 2021 and 2030, while simultaneously ensuring that bioenergy production does not incur negative social and environmental consequences.
Bioenergy is an important pillar of decarbonisation in the energy transition as a near zero-emission fuel. Bioenergy is useful because there is flexibility in the contexts and sectors it can be used in, from solid bioenergy and biogases combusted for power and heat in homes and industrial plants to liquid biofuels used in cars, ships and airplanes. Furthermore, it can often take advantage of existing infrastructure – for instance, biomethane can use existing natural gas pipelines and end-user equipment, while many drop-in liquid biofuels can use existing oil distribution networks and be used in vehicles with only minor alterations.
Bioenergy use needs to increase in a wide variety of applications by 2030 to get on track with the Net Zero Scenario, including the following:
- Biojet kerosene used in air travel increases from nearly zero in 2021 to account for over 7% of all aviation fuel demand in 2030.
- Liquid biofuel consumption quadruples from 2.1 mboe/d in 2021 to over 8 mboe/d in 2030, mainly for road transport.
- Bioenergy use in industry increases substantially, from supplying a little over 11 EJ of energy in 2021 to over 17 EJ in 2030, mostly in cement, pulp and paper, and light industry.
- Bioenergy used for electricity generation provides dispatchable, low-emission power to complement generation from variable renewables. Its use nearly doubles, from creating about 750 TWh of electricity (about 2.5% of total demand) in 2021 to about 1 350 TWh (about 3.5% of total demand) in 2030.
- Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – which creates negative emissions by capturing and storing bioenergy emissions that are already carbon-neutral – also plays a critical role. BECCS captured and stored 2 Mt of CO2 in 2021, and increases to around 250 Mt of CO2 in 2030, offsetting emissions from sectors where abatement will be most difficult.
Bioenergy is one component of the overall increase in renewable energy in the Net Zero Scenario.
Total global bioenergy use in 2030 under the Net Zero Scenario is only about 20% higher than in 2021, although this by itself is quite misleading. Over 35% of the bioenergy used in 2021 was from biomass for traditional cooking methods – practices that are unsustainable, inefficient, polluting and linked to 5 million premature deaths in 2021 alone. The use of this traditional biomass falls to zero by 2030 in the Net Zero Scenario in order to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 on Affordable and Clean Energy. Modern bioenergy usage, which excludes traditional uses of biomass, nearly doubles from about 42 EJ in 2021 to 80 EJ in 2030.
Bioenergy use by sector and share of modern bioenergy in total final consumption in the Net Zero Scenario, 2010-2030Open
The scenario sees the traditional use of biomass in rural areas replaced by biogas digesters, bioethanol, and solid biomass used in modern cookstoves, providing a source of clean cooking for over 350 million households by 2030. Sustainable bioenergy also provides a valuable source of employment and income for rural communities, reduces undue burdens on women often tasked with fuel collection, brings health benefits from reduced air pollution and proper waste management, and reduces methane emissions from waste decomposition. More needs to be done to phase out the traditional use of biomass, as its use in absolute terms has stayed relatively constant since 2016.
Bioenergy comes from a variety of different sources. Some bioenergy sources – such as black liquor from paper production – are the by-product of an industrial process that would have taken place anyway. More commonly, though, bioenergy is sourced from purpose-grown crops or trees in a highly land-intensive process relative to other forms of energy. Unsustainable bioenergy production can have social consequences – such as impacts on food prices and competition for land use – as well as negative environmental externalities such as worsened biodiversity and net increases in emissions. Meeting the Net Zero Scenario will require bioenergy production to increase, but care must be taken to ensure that doing so does not result in significant negative effects for society or the environment. In accordance with these sustainability considerations, there is no expansion of cropland for bioenergy nor conversion of existing forested land into bioenergy crop production in the Net Zero Scenario. Under this scenario in 2030 60% of bioenergy supply comes from waste and residues that do not require land use.
Many jurisdictions are making moves that suggest they see a significant long-term role for bioenergy in the energy transition. These include:
- Over 80 countries currently have policies supporting liquid biofuels.
- A number of countries, including Canada, China, Lithuania and the United States, have announced since 2021 that they are investing significantly in the research and deployment of biofuels.
- Additionally, the United States passed the Inflation Reduction Act in August 2022, which includes extended and new policy support for biofuels, particularly advanced biofuels and sustainable aviation fuels.
- India updated it biomass co-firing policy in 2021, with a focus on utilising agricultural residues and an aim to reduce air pollution in rural areas.
- Since 2021, Brazil, Sweden and the United Kingdom have put in place policies for the further development of biofuel in their economies.
India 2022 In force National
Poland 2022 In force National
Brazil 2021 In force National
United Kingdom 2021 In force National
United States 2021 In force National
Sweden 2021 In force National
Recommendations for policy makers
It is critical that the increased bioenergy production needed to get on track with the Net Zero Scenario does not create negative impacts on biodiversity, freshwater systems, food availability or human quality of life. Only bioenergy that reduces lifecycle GHG emissions while avoiding unacceptable social, environmental and economic impacts should receive policy support. The European Union, the United States (through minimum GHG thresholds in the RFS programme and the incorporation of indirect land use change into California’s LCFS) and Brazil have established frameworks to codify some aspects of liquid biofuel sustainability, but other countries must also ensure that rigorous sustainability governance is linked to bioenergy policy support. In addition to this, monitoring, reporting and verification frameworks should be employed to address accounting issues related to the use of bioenergy in power generation, especially in relation to negative emissions accounting for BECCS.
National governments can employ a combination of regulatory measures such as mandates, low-carbon fuel standards and GHG intensity targets to incentivise modern bioenergy usage. These policies should be implemented within a larger framework for reducing emissions – such as emissions pricing – to ensure that policies provide the incentive to reduce emissions, not simply increase bioenergy demand.
Bioenergy offers high flexibility in reducing emissions, able to replace fossil fuels in a variety of contexts. At the same time, sustainability constraints stemming from land use, social and environmental externalities preclude it from being as widely used as alternatives like electricity in the path to net zero. Bioenergy policy design should therefore target the highest-value uses for bioenergy in the energy sector, including its use in existing infrastructure, its potential to produce high energy density fuels for long-distance transport, its dispatchability to support the integration of variable renewables into the grid and its usefulness in meeting broader policy objectives, such as waste management and rural development. Power sector policies can design auctions suited to specific grid stability requirements and demand profiles (when power is needed at different times of the day and year), while fuel policies can incentivise use in hard-to-abate areas like aviation.
Recommendations for policy makers and the private sector
Policies incentivising greater use of waste and residues as fuels will be important to get bioenergy on track. Supporting waste- and residue-based energy use in Latin America, China and ASEAN countries would be particularly fruitful as these regions possess significant feedstock resources. Relevant policies include de-risking measures such as loan guarantees and biofuel quotas for emerging fuels. The European Parliament, for example, adopted sustainable aviation fuel blending targets in July 2022 to support its expansion using waste- and residue-based fuels. Improving waste collection and sorting is also necessary to expand energy-from-waste (EfW) capacity. In Europe, policies that discourage sending waste to landfills (such as landfill bans or taxation) have prompted higher EfW development.
The IEA Bioenergy Technology Collaboration Programme is an IEA-led programme that supports the work of independent, international groups of experts on bioenergy that enable governments and industries from around the world to lead programmes and projects. The programme's website also serves as an excellent place for the latest news and resources on bioenergy's role in the energy transition.