Rising global demand for cleaner energy from biomass could drive more land acquisition in poorer nations where food security and land rights are weak, according to an International Institute for Environment and Development report released yesterday (30 August).
"If left unchecked, the growing pressure on land access could undermine livelihoods and food security in some of the world's poorest countries," the London-based non-profit research group said, calling for more public scrutiny of global biomass expansion plans.
Biomass energy makes up 77% of world renewable energy, and trees and woody plants account for 87% of that biomass, said the report.
As governments attempt to move away from fossil fuel-based power, they are increasingly looking at biomass, as new technologies now allow it to be converted competitively into liquid fuels and electricity.
In Britain alone, plans to expand biomass energy will push demand for biomass up to as much as 60 million tonnes a year, compared with one million tonnes burned or co-fired in the country's biomass power stations today, according to the IIED.
Local sourcing, such as using wood from forests near power plants, is favored by countries such as Germany, France and the United States.
However, in the search for cheap land, suitable climates and competitive transport costs, investors could increasingly focus on Africa and south-east Asia, where many countries suffer from food insecurity and weak land rights.
Such plantations could displace poor and marginalised communities from land they have looked after for generations but have no formal claim over, the report warned.
"Biomass plantations may also compete for the best lands with food crops (and with biofuel feedstocks), adversely affecting local food security and further marginalising smallholder farming," it added.
With demand for wood set to outstrip supply by up to 600% in some countries, and high tree growth rates in tropical countries, some developed countries may look at non-traditional suppliers in the south to plug the biomass gap.
Already, operators in Brazil are becoming more interested in exporting wood chips to Europe, while Africa is also likely to play an important role in feeding European demand.
"All eyes are turned to food and biofuels, but tree plantations for biomass energy may soon become an important driver in the global land rush," said Lorenzo Cotula, a senior researcher at IIED and co-author of the report.
Investing in biomass plantations could become more attractive in the coming years as fossil fuel prices rise and the cost of biomass production falls as new production methods develop, the report said.
Biomass plantations may also be able to generate additional revenue streams, such as by selling carbon credits.
EurActiv with Reuters