Even though demand for bioenergy, particularly biofuels for transport, is currently on the rise, it has also been met by a growing debate questioning its purported benefits. These benefits can come at the risk of environmental, social and economic harm.


  • 2.7 billion people are dependent on traditional bioenergy, mainly from wood, crop residues and animal dung, as their main source of cooking and heating fuel. End use is often inefficient and comes with serious health impacts from indoor air pollution, as well as emissions of black carbon, a short-lived climate pollutant. Firewood is often harvested unsustainably, causing soil erosion and increasing the risk of flooding, as well as threatening biodiversity and adding to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Currently, traditional biomass makes about for roughly half of the share of renewable in the energy mix. Modern, sustainably produced bioenergy can help in the transition to reducing this share, and increase the share of sustainable renewable energy.
  • Bioenergy can help achieve multiple policy objectives, from energy security and access to local development and revitalisation of the agricultural sector, and reducing GHG emissions. Achievement of these objectives depends largely on how well bioenergy development is planned and managed. If produced unsustainably its environmental and social impacts can be devastating. We need comprehensive policies and mandatory certification to ensure bioenergy is produced to the highest standards.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions are lower than from fossil fuels, provided there is enough regrowth to absorb the carbon dioxide released, and good management practices are applied. Land conversion is a decisive factor in the assessment of the carbon footprint over the entire life-cycle.
  • Bioenergy requires natural resource inputs, particularly land and water, which are under pressure in many regions of the world already. Major trends such as population growth, for more demand for food, energy and materials, as well as the projected negative effects of climate change on the agricultural sector, will put further pressure on these critical inputs. Solid integrated water and land management practices need to be applied, and new business models need to be developed catering for the different end use markets of biomass, i.e. food, feed, materials, chemicals and energy.


UNEP is working on different levels, in the spirit of ‘bioenergy is neither good nor bad per se, all depends on how bioenergy development is planned and managed’:

  • Scientific reports that point to risks and opportunities, taking a lifecycle perspective;
  • Tools to support policy makers to device national and/or regional policies and strategies that are rooted in resource and needs assessments, and fit with national low-carbon development plans;
  • Tools to support decision makers on the project level, from financiers and investors to entrepreneurs, to build more solid projects that respond to environmental, social and economic considerations;
  • Finance mechanisms, from entrepreneur finance to CDM
  • Technical assistance on the national policy level.


UNEP has contributed to building the scientific base, including:

  • International Resource Panel – “Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Assessing Biofuels” (2009), Land Report (2013)
  • Series of expert workshops on Land Use Change and indirect Land Use Change, High Conservation Value Areas and Degraded Lands, and Bioenergy and Water
  • Issue Paper series on topics such as Invasive Species, REDD, Stakeholder Engagement, Bioenergy and Access to Energy
  • GEF targeted research project jointly led with FAO and UNIDO “Assessments and Guidelines for Sustainble Liquid Biofuel Production in Developing Countries” (2013)

UNEP has developed tools for decision-makers:

  • as a member of the Global Bioenergy Partnership, UNEP contributed to the development of the 24 sustainability indicators that allow policy-makers to monitor effectiveness of policies to reach policy objectives set nationally
  • as a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, UNEP contributed to the development of this sustainability standard which is broad in scope and was developed in a multi-stakeholder approach
  • as a member of UN Energy, UNEP together with FAO authored the Bioenergy Decision Tool, a web-based tool that provides step-wise guidance on bioenergy policy and strategy development as well as assessment of investment proposals

UNEP projects pilot finance mechanisms:

  • CASCADe; a programme that enhances African expertise to generate carbon credits in the forestry and bioenergy sectors
  • AREED; a programme that promotes rural energy enterprises in African countries, and features several bioenergy enterprises that produce bioenergy locally for local use

UNEP has supported agro-ecological mapping in three African countries; a tool that allows to designate areas suitable and available for bioenergy development.

UNEP, FAO and IUCN are setting up a multi-sectoral platform on biomass optimization, broadening the scope to all biomass end uses.