Bioenergy production and sustainable development: science base for policymaking remains limited

Carmenza Robledo-Abad (Corresponding Author), Hans-Jörg Althaus, Göran Berndes, Simon Bolwig, Esteve Corbera, Felix Creutzig, John Garcia-Ulloa, Anna Geddes, Jay S Gregg, Helmut Haberl, Susanne Hanger, Richard J Harper, Carol Hunsberger, Rasmus K. Larsen, Christian Lauk, Stefan Leitner, Johan Lilliestam, Hermann Lotze-Campen, Bart Muys, Maria NordborgMaria Ölund, Boris Orlowsky, Alexander Popp, Joanna Portugal-Pereira, Jürgen Reinhard, Lena Scheiffle, Pete Smith

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The possibility of using bioenergy as a climate change mitigation measure has sparked a discussion of whether and how bioenergy production contributes to sustainable development. We undertook a systematic review of the scientific literature to illuminate this relationship and found a limited scientific basis for policymaking. Our results indicate that knowledge on the sustainable development impacts of bioenergy production is concentrated in a few well-studied countries, focuses on environmental and economic impacts, and mostly relates to dedicated agricultural biomass plantations. The scope and methodological approaches in studies differ widely and only a small share of the studies sufficiently reports on context and/or baseline conditions, which makes it difficult to get a general understanding of the attribution of impacts. Nevertheless, we identified regional patterns of positive or negative impacts for all categories – environmental, economic, institutional, social and technological. In general, economic and technological impacts were more frequently reported as positive, while social and environmental impacts were more frequently reported as negative (with the exception of impacts on direct substitution of GHG emission from fossil fuel). More focused and transparent research is needed to validate these patterns and develop a strong science underpinning for establishing policies and governance agreements that prevent/mitigate negative and promote positive impacts from bioenergy production.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)541–556
Number of pages16
JournalGlobal Change Biology. Bioenergy
Issue number3
Early online date23 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017

Bibliographical note


The authors gratefully acknowledge the participation Omar Masera, Richard Plevin, Roberto Schaeffer, Rainer Zah and Jacob Mulugetta during the literature appraisal. Carmenza Robledo-Abad acknowledges support from the Swiss State Secretary of Economic Affairs. Helmut Haberl gratefully acknowledges funding from the Austrian Provision Programme, the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Global Change Programme) and the EU-FP7 project VOLANTE.

Esteve Corbera acknowledges the support of the Spanish Research, Development and Innovation Secretariat through a ‘Ramón y Cajal’ research fellowship (RYC-2010-07183) and of a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant (PCIG09-GA-2011-294234). Simon Bolwig acknowledges the support of the Innovation Fond Denmark. Alexander Popp acknowledges the support from the European Union's Seventh Framework Program project LUC4C (grant agreement no. 603542). Bart Muys acknowledges support from the KLIMOS Acropolis research network on sustainable development funded by VLIR/ARES/DGD (Belgian Development Aid). Rasmus Kløcker Larsen acknowledges funding from the Swedish research council Formas. Carol Hunsberger acknowledges the support of a postdoctoral fellowship from Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. John Garcia-Ulloa is supported by the Mercator Foundation Switzerland and the Zurich-Basel Plant Science Center. Johan Lilliestam, Anna Geddes and Susan Hanger acknowledge the support from the European Research Council (ERC) consolidator grant, contract number 313533. Joana Portugal-Pereira acknowledges the support of National Centre of Technological and Scientific Development (CNPq), under the Science Without Borders Programme (no 401164/2012-8). Richard Harper acknowledges funding from the Australian Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.


  • agriculture
  • bioenergy
  • food security
  • forestry
  • mitigation
  • sustainable development


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