Biomass is a promising source of renewable low-carbon energy, but it’s constrained by land and water availability, by soils’ ability to produce biomass, and by the need to return some biomass to the land to retain nutrients and soil moisture. There are also competing uses for biomass – for food, for animal feed, for materials, and to protect habitats and ecosystems – and the need to reduce emissions, in itself, also constrains land conversion and agricultural practices.

Currently, the discussion of biomass resources in a low-carbon world is dominated by existing energy uses – that is, for combustion, and as feedstock for biofuels. In the long run, however, increasing electrification and new technologies could significantly reduce demand for biofuels and other liquid fuels. As this occurs, a new “bio-based economy” may emerge that focuses less on low-carbon energy and more on meeting demands from industry: for feedstocks for the production of chemicals and materials, and for combustibles for process heat. In an increasingly resource-constrained world, the authors find, innovation and novelty in industrial biomass uses could spur continued economic growth.

To gauge the potential for larger-scale biomass use, the authors explore four scenarios: a ‘Single Bottom Line’ driven primarily by market forces; ‘Meeting the Climate Challenge’, focused entirely on curbing emissions; ‘Feeding the Planet’, focused on increasing food production; and a ‘Sustainability Transition’ that uses biomass for food, energy, industrial materials, and more.

They find that while all of the scenarios require trade-offs, the latter could yield great benefits, helping address the urgent climate problem while spurring improvements in agriculture to boost food production and result in new agricultural products.

The report also explores the potential for agricultural yield improvements, and ends with a series of considerations for policy-makers and business leaders, including an agenda for further research.

Download the report (PDF, 1.55MB)

Read a policy brief summarising the findings »