Biomass Energy: Ensuring Sustainability through Conditioned Economic Incentives (E.B. Bluemel)


Erik B. Bluemel ( University of Denver , USA )


Global warming, climate change, biomass, international trade, environmental law, energy, alternative energy, ethanol, subsidies


Current strategies to minimize the anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases focus on reducing emissions from developed countries. Long term strategies for addressing global warming, however, will need to minimize greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries, as approximately two-thirds of the global energy demand growth in the next twenty-five years will occur in developing countries. As large developing countries such as China and India increase their per capita energy use, new strategies will be needed to curb global warming.

The conversion of biomass, including energy crops such as corn and switchgrass, agricultural waste, forestry products, and municipal waste, to energy has often been acclaimed as a strategy to reduce greenhouse gases. Much attention has been dedicated to evaluating the potential of biofuels to replace gasoline and diesel fuels and ways to encourage such a replacement. Little attention, however, has been paid to the use of biomass resources to produce electricity. Given the vast availability of agricultural and forestry residues, and their limited utility for use in ethanol, they may provide an important fuel source for electricity generation in developing countries. This Article seeks to bridge that gap and identifies some unique opportunities that are present in the regulation of electricity, which may encourage the development of both the renewable electricity and biofuels industries. This Article evaluates the use of biomass, and in particular, agricultural and forestry residues and other cellulosic materials, to serve as a source of electricity for developing countries. While biomass has the potential to assist developing countries in meeting their energy needs with no net greenhouse gas emissions, the use of biomass sources can have a number of adverse environmental and other consequences, which may counsel against the use of biomass resources.

This Article begins by identifying, in Part II, how the use of biomass resources may prove desirable for developing countries as locally-derived energy sources that reduce net carbon emissions, while improving income stability for local farmers. Part III highlights some of the environmental, social and distributive challenges that utilization of biomass resources, especially utilization of those resources in monoculture plantations, may present for developing countries. These challenges may include biodiversity loss, increased nutrient runoff, food insecurity, and land disputes. Part IV then identifies some of the myriad ways conversion of biomass resources into electricity can affect the environment, including through unique emissions of pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and a variety of toxins. Part V concludes by developing some factors that may assist individuals and policymakers to identify when and where the use of biomass resources for energy purposes would be beneficial. It suggests that sustainability standards, when linked to subsidies, could promote the beneficial exploitation of biomass resources for electricity generation, while maintaining consistency with the international trade rules.


(2007) 19 Georgetown International Environmental Law Review 673


Biomass Energy: Ensuring Sustainability through Conditioned Economic Incentives