Solving the climate crisis undoubtedly requires a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. While the goal is for a complete departure from fossil fuels sooner than later, the pace at which each country will carry out its transition will vary, with different sets of strategies being devised to define transitions.

An increase in the use of biomass in thermal power plants is increasingly being regarded as a viable strategy to reduce countries’ dependence on fossil fuels for power generation.

Just transition considerations in increasing biomass production for power generation

Whether thermal power plants are to employ co-firing with biomass and fossil fuels or solely utilize biomass, the necessary increase in (if it is not to be imported) can trigger a range of issues. Concerns about technical feasibility and environmental integrity aside, one crucial area that needs to be considered relates to a just transition. To ensure that the replacement of fossil fuels with biomass is carried out justly, decision makers and other relevant players should strive to mitigate potential adverse socio-economic impacts on communities while also making their benefits and opportunities accessible to all.

This article considers some potential just energy transition-related issues attributed to increasing biomass production to support decarbonization efforts in a country.

Local communities and indigenous groups may be unjustly evicted

The acquisition of land dedicated to the production of biomass feedstocks for power plants can introduce issues related to land rights. Although local communities, particularly indigenous peoples, have occupied forest lands for generations, many may not have legal ownership of these areas. Pressure to establish plantations for producing biomass feedstocks may lead to land grabs and the forced evictions of local communities who do not hold titles to lay claim to these lands. In some cases, even those with formal ownership of the lands are pressured to sell, with clearing of lands already being commenced even before any formal deals are made. With this loss comes the loss of homes and livelihoods, greatly affecting communities and individuals who have long relied on their lands for their lives.

The opportunities of biomass production should be accessible to all

The demand for biomass will surely give rise to new revenue streams for farmers and others interested in pursuing the economic opportunities that will emerge. However, it is imperative that such opportunities are made accessible to all and not only to a select few. Thus, strategies for establishing supply chains for biomass utilization in power plants should consider how more farmers can participate. Strategies should take heed not to rely solely on large-scale farms who may have the means to meet the demand and to find ways to empower small-scale farmers.

Conversion of farms to production forests may lead to food insecurity

Food security may also become a critical issue. Farmers currently engaged in agriculture and food production may be interested in converting their lands to production forests to pursue the economic benefits of growing biomass feedstocks to be sold to power plants. Where domestic agriculture is key to feeding local populations, a switch of a significant number of farms from food production may lead to food insecurity. This could be even more relevant in areas where populations are expected to grow substantially in the next few decades. Therefore, while it is true that opportunities for biomass production should be made available to all farmers, governments should also consider incentivizing food production for farmers.

Conclusion

These are only a few potential just energy transition-related issues concerning increasing biomass production to support decarbonization efforts in a country. It will be key to understand to what extent these issues—and many others—are relevant in a given country. Adequate assessments to quantify the impacts of co-firing and other related strategies will be needed to identify the appropriate actions to mitigate them. Ultimately, what is important is that a country’s efforts to pursue an energy transition do not compromise the well-being of the population and that the benefits of economic development are equitable.

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