Bioenergy  is the single largest renewable energy source today, providing 10% of world primary energy supply. It plays a crucial role in many developing countries, where it provides basic energy for cooking and space heating, but often at the price of severe health and environmental impacts. The deployment of advanced biomass cook stoves, clean fuels and additional off-grid biomass electricity supply in developing countries are key measures to improve the current situation and achieve universal access to clean energy facilities by 2030.

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Bioenergy policy should be woven with consideration of sustainability so to avoid increased pressure on natural resources – including land, water and biodiversity (Photograph: Getty Images) More »»

Biofuels can provide up to 27% of world transportation fuel by 2050

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About bioenergy


Biomass  is any organic, i.e. decomposable, matter derived from plants or animals available on a renewable basis. Biomass includes wood and agricultural crops, herbaceous and woody energy crops, municipal organic wastes as well as manure.

Bioenergy is energy derived from the conversion of biomass where biomass may be used directly as fuel, or processed into liquids and gases.

Traditional biomass use refers to the use of wood, charcoal, agricultural resides and animal dung for cooking and heating in the residential sector. It tends to have very low conversion efficiency (10% to 20%) and often unsustainable supply.


Bioenergy accounts for roughly 10% (50 EJ) of world total primary energy supply today. Most of this is consumed in developing countries for cooking and heating, using very inefficient open fires or simple cookstoves with considerable impact on health (smoke pollution) and environment (deforestation). Modern bioenergy supply on the other hand is comparably small, but has been growing steadily in the last decade. In the buildings sector, modern bioenergy use for heat reached around 5 EJ in 2012. In addition, 8 EJ were use in industry, mainly in the pulp and paper as well as the food processing sector, to provide low- and medium-temperature process heat (see Heating Without Global Warming for more details).

Furthermore, a total of 370 TWh of bioenergy electricity was produced in 2012. This corresponds to 1.5% of world electricity generation.

Numerous technologies for generating bioenergy heat and power already exist, ranging from solid wood heating installations for buildings to biogas digesters for power generation, to large-scale biomass gasification plants for heat and power. Co-firing biomass with coal in existing coal-fired power plants can be an important option to achieve short-term emission reductions and make more sustainable use of existing assets. In addition, new dedicated bioenergy plants are becoming increasingly important to meet growing demand for bioenergy electricity and heat.

In favourable circumstances, producing energy from biomass can be cost competitive today, in particular heat. However, in many cases, economic incentives are currently needed to off-set cost differences between bioenergy and fossil fuel-generated electricity and heat. Such support is justified by the environmental, energy security and socio-economic advantages associated with sustainable bioenergy, but should be introduced as transitional measure leading to cost competitiveness in the medium term. Support measures should be backed by a strong policy framework which balances the need for energy with other important objectives such greenhouse-gas reduction, food security, biodiversity, and socio-economic development.


Bioenergy power generation and forecast by region

IEA, (2015), Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2015, OECD/IEA, Paris.



About biofuels


Biofuels are liquid and gaseous fuels produced from biomass – organic matter derived from plants or animals. 


Conventional biofuel technologies include well-established processes that are already producing biofuels on a commercial scale. These biofuels, commonly referred to as first-generation, include sugar- and starch-based ethanol, oil-crop based biodiesel and straight vegetable oil, as well as biogas derived through anaerobic digestion. Typical feedstocks used in these processes include sugarcane and sugar beet, starch-bearing grains like corn and wheat, oil crops like rape (canola), soybean and oil palm, and in some cases animal fats and used cooking oils.

Advanced biofuel technologies are conversion technologies which are still in the research and development (R&D), pilot or demonstration phase, commonly referred to as second- or third- generation. This category includes biofuels based on lignocellulosic biomass, such as cellulosic-ethanol, biomass-to-liquids (BtL)-diesel and bio-synthetic gas (bio-SG). The category also includes novel technologies that are mainly in the R&D and pilot stage, such as algae-based biofuels and the conversion of sugar into diesel-type biofuels using biological or chemical catalysts.

In 2014 biofuels provide 4% of world road transport fuel, and are expected to rise slowly, reaching almost 4.3% in 2020. The global context for biofuels is changing as a result of the significant reduction in crude oil prices observed in 2014. However, this had only a limited effect on 2014 production as biofuel consumption remains largely mandate-driven. Production volumes reached 127 billion L in 2014, up from almost 118 billion L in 2013. Despite lower oil prices, world biofuels production is still forecasted to rise in the medium term to almost 144.5 billion L.


World biofuels production 2008-2020 


IEA, (2015), Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2015, OECD/IEA, Paris.


Some of the conventional biofuels used today do not always meet expected net life-cycle greenhouse gas emission and cost performance targets, and certain conventional biofuels have been criticised for causing deforestation and adding to pressure on agricultural land needed for food and fodder production. The IEA considers it important to distinguish between different types of feedstocks and conversion routes, and ensure deployment of land-use efficient, low-carbon biofuels to meet growing demand.

The IEA calls on governments to ensure that their biofuel support policies foster the transition towards fully sustainable biofuels, including advanced biofuel technologies. Internationally aligned sustainability certification schemes for biofuels will be vital to ensure a positive environmental and social impact, and create an international market for sustainable biofuels. The IEA emphasises the importance of continuing to support advanced biofuels research, development and demonstration, and provide sound support mechanisms to ensure that the new technologies reach full market deployment. Any economic incentive should however be transitional, decrease over time and be aimed at encouraging the full competitiveness of alternative fuels.

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Fast facts

  • 90.2 GWTotal bioenergy capacity in 2014
  • 4%In 2014 biofuels provided 4% of world road transport fuel