Waste not, want not: Wood residues for sustainable bioenergy, innovative business and climate change mitigation
25 January 2023, Rome – Wood residues – the materials left over when trees are logged and processed – hold the potential to support resource-efficient energy access, revitalize rural economies and help mitigate climate change, according to a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
In many countries, wood residues are seen as low-value materials and are often discarded, or used as fuel for heating or cooking. If used in open fires or rustic ovens, this may result in air pollution and health problems.
The role of wood residues in the transition to sustainable bioenergy, produced in collaboration with Canada’s Laval University, instead explores the potential for converting wood residues into modern bioenergy such as wood pellets and wood-based gaseous or liquid energy carriers. These can be used to generate heat and electricity for local use or fed into the power grids.
Converting wood residues into modern bioenergy products can significantly improve their fuel properties (such as moisture content, density, calorific value and combustion efficiency) while making logistic handling, compact storage and long-distance transport easier and cheaper.
“When we consider that as much as 85 percent of trees in industrial harvesting can end up as wood residues, it’s clear that efficient use of wood residues for modern bioenergy and other forest products can reduce the pressure on natural forests,” said Senior FAO Forestry Officer Sven Walter.
“In turn, this can help reduce greenhouse gases, contribute to a transition towards a forest-based bioeconomy, and help achieve Sustainable Development Goal targets on increasing the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.”
Opportunities and challenges
The role of wood residues in the transition to sustainable bioenergy analyses the use of industrially harvested wood as well as the energy mix in regions around the world to identify opportunities to deploy wood residues for modern bioenergy, and challenges to overcome in doing so.
It notes a higher percentage of use of industrial roundwood in the Global North versus substantially lower rates in most of the subregions in Africa and in some of Asia and the Americas. It also indicates where there is potential to encourage a sequential or ‘cascading’ use of wood residues before their final disposal, maximizing their added value.
But the report observes a significant challenge to deployment of modern and sustainable bioenergy in developing countries where woodfuel plays an important role in the energy mix. Currently, the informal woodfuel sector provides significant income to a large population in many countries. As such, the report says, the regulation and formalization of this sector could have important impacts for an effective energy transition.
To help address challenges to deploying wood residues for modern bioenergy, the report recommends better governance of land use and forest resources to help the modernization of wood energy value chains, and establishing a market price for wood reflecting the cost of sustainable production.
It also recommends raising awareness of the benefits of modern bioenergy as a renewable resource and improving data on wood flows from the land base to end-users to better understand availability and usage of wood residues.
It suggests fostering bioenergy cooperatives, comprising producers, entrepreneurs and consumers, to ensure more reliable supply of wood residues and better technologies to process them. The publication calls on policymakers to consider adopting technical standards and certification schemes for wood residues and energy carriers, as well as measures that incentivize and support the development of new industries and markets for wood products, and guarantee prices for modern bioenergy.