The report reviews more than 90 global studies. It has been produced by the Technology and Policy Assessment function of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), which addresses key controversies in the energy field, and aims to provide authoritative and accessible reports that set very high standards for rigour and transparency.

A debate has been raging about the role biomass could play in the future energy system: some say it could play a major role in fuelling the planet, others argue it risks an environmental disaster. To get to the heart of the controversy, UKERC scientists at Imperial College London have undertaken the first systematic review of the evidence base.

The report finds that the main reason scientists disagree is that they make different assumptions about population, diet, and land use. A particularly important bone of contention is the speed with which productivity improvements in food and energy crop production can be rolled out.

“If we make the best use of agricultural residues, energy crops and waste materials then getting one fifth of current global energy supply from biomass is a reasonable ambition”, says Dr Raphael Slade, the report’s lead author and a Research Fellow at Imperial College London. The report finds that getting more than this is technically possible but requires assumptions about food production and changes in diets that look increasingly challenging, especially as people in Asia and Latin America begin to adopt a high meat western diet as incomes rise.

“The more bio-energy you want the harder it becomes to reconcile demand for food, energy and environmental protection” says Slade. Replacing all fossil fuels with biomass would be equivalent to all of global agriculture and commercial forestry combined, and would only be possible if we can grow more food on less land.

Technical advances could be the least contentious route to increased bio-energy production, but policy will need to encourage innovation and investment. A renewed focus on increasing food and energy crop yields could deliver a win-win opportunity as long as it is done without damaging soil fertility or depleting water resources. The report highlights the potential for policy to promote learning by encouraging development of sustainable biomass now, rather than waiting for the definitive answer on the ultimate potential.

“The main mistake is to think of this as all or nothing. There’s plenty of scope for experimentation to make sure we get it right”, says Dr Slade.

Energy is an essential input into global agriculture, and the interactions between these two areas need to be better understood. The report stresses the need for scientists working on food and agriculture to work more closely with bio-energy specialists to address challenges such as water availability and environmental protection. If biomass is required to play a major role in the future energy system the linkages between bio-energy and food production will become too important for either to be considered in isolation.

“Bioenergy may need to play a part in a future low carbon energy mix”, says Dr Ausilio Bauen, Head of Bioenergy at Imperial College’s Centre for Energy Policy and Technology. “Ensuring bio-energy, food and forests don't compete for land won't be straightforward. But, if we use land more productively, and make better use of available plant material, we should be perfectly capable of producing bio-energy, feeding a growing population, and conserving the environment all at the same time.”

Ends.

Energy from biomass: the size of the global resource. An assessment of the evidence that biomass can make a major contribution to future global energy supply.

For further information, to speak to any of the report authors, or to request a hard copy of the report please contact Charlotte Knight, Communications Officer at UKERC on charlotte.knight at ukerc.ac.uk or 020 7594 1573 or Lindsay Wright, Head of Communications on lindsay.wright at ukerc.ac.uk or 020 7594 2669.

Download the report

Notes to editors

UKERC:

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) is the focal point for UK research on sustainable energy. It takes an independent, whole-systems approach, drawing on engineering, economics and the physical, environmental and social sciences.

The Centre's role is to promote cohesion within the overall UK energy research effort. It acts as a bridge between the UK energy research community and the wider world, including business, policymakers and the international energy research community, and is the centrepiece of the Research Councils' Energy Programme.

Website: www.ukerc.ac.uk(external link)

Twitter: www.twitter.com/ukerchq(external link)

IMPERIAL COLLEGE LONDON:

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.    

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.

In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.

Website: www.imperial.ac.uk(external link)

Twitter: www.twitter.com/imperialspark(external link)

Podcast: www.imperial.ac.uk/media/podcasts(external link)