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Forests & Energy

4. How much can forestry contribute to future energy demand?

  • 4.1 Which factors does wood energy development depend on?
  • 4.2 How much can different sources of wood contribute to energy production?
  • 4.3 How do different biofuels compare in terms of competitiveness and greenhouse gas emissions?

4.1 Which factors does wood energy development depend on?

Energy generated from the residues of forestry operations
                                        could be considerable
Energy generated from the residues of forestry operations could be considerable

Supply and demand of wood energy will be affected differently by different factors across developed and developing countries. In general, the extent to which forestry will contribute to future energy production will be influenced by:

  • the ability of wood-based energy to meet the objectives of recent energy policies;
  • the socioeconomic and environmental costs and benefits of wood energy production; and
  • the policies and institutions that determine forestry practices.

The development of wood energy largely depends on the effectiveness of policies designed to promote it and on how well these policies are implemented. High fossil fuel prices are an incentive for biofuel development, but if those prices are too low, namely due to abundant coal reserves, biofuel demand will only increase where policy is effectively implemented. In countries where domestic policies fail to draw interest away from fossil fuels, export markets could play a key role in bioenergy development.

The ecological, economic and social aspects of wood energy production will also be of importance. For instance, issues related to climate change and energy efficiency will influence how much wood products will contribute to energy generation, as will regional factors related to supply location, infrastructure, growth conditions and labor availability.

In many parts of the world, investments in plantation expansion for bioenergy may be hampered by such factors as conflicting land claims, risk of expropriation, ineffective governance, etc.

Investments in bioenergy often depend on subsidies and new technology developments. Developing countries with limited budgets will need to be particularly careful when assessing the risks and benefits of investing in bioenergy. The Kyoto Protocol offers incentives for establishing energy plantations and financing sustainable biofuel use and facilitates technology transfer to developing countries. More...

4.2 How much can different sources of wood contribute to energy production?

Wood energy is among the most efficient sources of bioenergy in terms of quantity of energy released by unit of carbon emitted. When produced with efficient technology, it can already compete with fossil fuels. Besides, it can help countries with large forested areas increase their energy security. The two major sources of wood-based energy are forest plantations and wood residues. More...

4.2.1 Much energy can be generated from the biomass discarded by ongoing forest operations. Indeed, only a small portion of each harvested tree is converted to market products. In a few countries, the energy that could be generated from all the excess wood residues discarded by mills and harvesting operations could exceed the national demand in energy. In addition, efficient methods of harvesting and transportation could be used to collect wood residues left from harvesting operations in tropical forests to further reduce the cost and environmental impacts of power generation from wood residues, particularly in developing countries. However, care should be taken to leave an appropriate amount of residues on the ground, as they are necessary for maintaining soil and ecosystem health.

The social and environmental impacts of energy crop plantations, that require land to grow, could be averted by generating biofuels from agricultural and forest residues. Still, the number of plantations will likely increase, among others because the amount of available wood residue is expected to decrease in coming years due to reduced forest cover. More...

4.2.2 Forest plantations have long been used to produce wood for energy, predominantly for small, local consumption. In temperate zones, there are a number of fast growing tree species suitable for energy plantations. In Brazil, where large-scale production of energy from wood has been explored for decades, forest plantations have been used to generate heat and power for the steel, food, beverage, and other industries. Clear and consistent policies can help compensate for the cultural, economic and environmental downsides of increased investment in forest plantations. For plantations to be economically viable, high-productivity, efficient harvesting and good logistics are fundamental.

The advantage of generating energy from trees, as opposed to agricultural crops, is that trees do not have to be harvested each year, the harvest can be delayed when market prices are down, and the products can fulfil a variety of end-uses. More...

4.2.3 Lesser used tree species of no value for the timber industry could also be used for energy production, along with secondary forests. If adequately managed, those wood sources could lead to increased revenue and improve sustainable forest management. More...

4.2.4 Existing forestry operations are likely to supply most of the wood used in future bioenergy production. This may change if economically competitive technologies for the production of second-generation biofuels become available. Technological advancements could also improve the efficiency of woodfuel generation and provide significant amounts of wood energy worldwide. Globally, the demand for wood energy is expected to increase. As a result, demand for biomass will exceed supply in many regions, particularly if wood processing industries compete with the bioenergy sector for biomass. More...

4.3 How do different biofuels compare in terms of competitiveness and greenhouse gas emissions?

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, studies estimate that the amount emitted during the production, processing, transport and use of second-generation liquid biofuels from crops and from forest and agricultural residues would be 75 to 85% lower compared with petroleum motor fuels. Second-generation liquid biofuels even have the potential to sequester more carbon than is released.

Different biofuels provide different degrees of efficiency improvements compared to fossil fuel use. For example, the use of wood-based bioethanol would improve energy efficiency by up to four times, while maize ethanol only conveys a slight improvement. The greatest decreases in greenhouse emissions result from the conversion of whole plants to liquid biofuels (biomass to liquid).

In terms of market competitiveness, sugar cane is the most economically attractive agricultural feedstock for liquid biofuel, before maize and other cereal and oilseed crops, and also before petrol. Currently, the costs of producing second-generation liquid biofuels such as ethanol from cellulose are higher than the costs of producing biofuels from cereal feedstocks. However, the potential for reducing production costs in the future appears to be much greater for such second-generation liquid biofuels, and by 2030 they could compete with sugar cane.

Should an economically viable production process for second-generation liquid biofuels be developed, forest biomass could become widely used in the transport sector, particularly in developed countries where the demand will likely be highest. More...

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