Study states impact of bioenergy on greenhouse gas emissions is uncertain

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An article published March 4 online in the journal, Nature Climate Change, states that there is no consistent conclusion on whether use of bioenergy will result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The role of bioenergy — fuel produced by biological organisms — and to what extent it should be used as an alternative to fossil fuels has been a source of scientific and political debate. The article, co-written by UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center researcher Richard Plevin, concluded that “a reconciliation of … contrasting views is still missing,” according to an abstract of the article.

Current debates surround the level of greenhouse gas emissions produced by use of bionenergy and whether they present risks. Production of crops for bioenergy uses can also be seen as driving up the price of food, due to their being grown on land formerly used for agriculture.

“The article nails down that the future of bioenergy deployment needs comprehensive consequential analysis of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Felix Creutzig, lead author of the study and former UC Berkeley postgraduate researcher, in an email.

Plevin said the “core problem” with analyzing bioenergy is its impact on so many markets.

“The challenge here is that you need to include a lot of factors and dynamics, and the uncertainty, hence, is (incredibly) large,” Creutzig added in the email.

The article was partly written in reaction to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on bioenergy, which did not present a coherent strategy on bioenergy’s role in addressing climate change, Plevin said.

Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research who also worked on the study, reiterated this idea in a post about the article on the institute’s website.

“When science succeeds in communicating all underlying assumptions and uncertainties to policy-makers then that can be a starting point for the important discussion on where we as a society want to go and which risks we are willing to take,” he wrote in the article.

The various backgrounds of the academic researchers led to many different understandings of the questions around bioenergy, which “required a lot of communication,” according to Creutzig.

Plevin said it is difficult to say how much the issue of bioenergy is going to affect daily life in the next few years.

“We need to understand whether these solutions are going to help us or not and focus on climate change mitigation solutions that we are highly confident are going to help us,” he said. “If the state of the science is unclear in that respect, it seems … that you need to have a strategy.”