Glaucia Mendes Souza

FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN) and University of São Paulo, Brazil (


Along with wind, solar and hydropower, bioenergy can play a critical role in supporting sustainable development, particularly in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, and strengthen resilience in managing climate change. In a world that is moving away from fossil fuels, energy access goals call for affordable, modern and reliable renewable energy for all in order to maintain sustainable growth and development. There are several bioenergy options that can help reduce greenhouse gases, bring access to secure, reliable energy and improve infrastructure and essential services to cities and rural areas. New technologies or systems employing biomass for liquid biofuels, biogas, bioelectricity and heat are constantly being developed, tested and introduced.

Energy from solar and wind can provide electricity, but bioenergy is a especially interesting option, as it can provide fuels that fit in the present infrastructure, while using own resources. Modern bioenergy offers improved energy access for developing countries because biomass can be stored to produce continuous rather than intermittent energy, making it easier to use and to integrate into unreliable power grids, it uses a locally available resource and it comes in many forms providing versatility for various applications. Additionally, improved energy access through the production of bioenergy in rural regions can improve agricultural productivity, enhance land use management, reduce land degradation, increase economic gains by adding energy products to the agricultural value chain, improve family income and create employment.

Sustainable bioenergy was shown to be able to be deployed in scale and provide energy security in the transportation sector in a short period of time. In Brazil, the significant share of ethanol that substitutes for gasoline shows how quickly the transition to renewables can be made. Nowadays sugarcane contributes with 17% of the country's energy matrix and 25% of the gasoline needs. Furthermore, this can be expanded significantly. The Brazilian ethanol production by 2045 could displace up to 13.7% of crude oil consumption and 5.6% of the world’s CO2 emissions relative to 2014. This could be achieved without using forest preservation areas or land necessary for food production systems in the country. Locally-produced transportation fuels made with local biomass allow countries to do an “end-run” around energy security challenges. Currently, bioethanol and biodiesel provide about 3% of the world’s transportation fuels, but biofuels could provide up to 30% by 2060 with projected improvements in technology.

Energy security needs not be made at the expanse of food security and biodiversity. Food insecurity is generally not caused by land scarcity but is more often due to underdeveloped institutions, lack of agricultural investment, low family income, poor infrastructure, and food waste. The use of modern bioenergy in these areas can be part of the solution rather than being seen as competition for available land. Latin America currently produces more food than it needs and exports food products to the rest of the world. Argentina has a population of 40 million yet its export capacity can feed over 400 million people. This scenario is likely to continue as Latin America’s population is not expected to grow dramatically. In Africa, population is expected to grow and developing bioenergy should not be made at the expense of food security. The vast majority of poor people in Latin America and Africa depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. The option to use feedstocks for bioenergy or other bio-products leads to technological gains, GDP and education improvements and increased resilience to economic disruption. R&D targeted at bioenergy can benefit food production and land preservation. Research targeted at a proper agroecological zoning has limited the occupation of inadequate areas and reduced the impacts on the environment. The enforcement of forest preservation might help to implement the concept of multifunctionality in agricultural landscapes dominated by plantations opening markets for biological production, conservation and innovation.

In general, the three types of innovative approaches needed to develop bioenergy are also required to meet wider sustainability goals: technological advancements such as systems to reduce emissions and improve water use efficiency, organizational advancements such as changes in institutional behavior and green financing and social advancements due to job creation, improved capacity building, better paid jobs. In fact, among all renewable energy sources, bioenergy is by far the one with potential to create more jobs in Latin America and Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America if water- scarce, marginal and degraded land is considered, there is an estimated 500 to 900 million hectares of land available without compromising food security or biodiversity.

Sustainable intensification of pasturelands with the integration of crops and/or trees can improve livestock production and spare land for other uses. This involves adopting improved varieties, practices that enhance soil fertility, multipurpose species which provide not only bioenergy but also valuable co-products including animal feed and development of new markets for residues.

Bioenergy technologies are improving significantly and are becoming each time more competitive compared to oil-based energy especially with the increase in biomass productivity. The total support cost for developing novel biofuels would be some US$ 84 billion. This sum, while substantial, represents a very small fraction of the total fossil fuel costs from now to 2040, which would total some US$ 33 trillion.

The high energy density of ethanol (around 70% of gasoline) highlights its potential to be used in transportation, helping secure a renewable energy matrix transition alongside solar and wind energy which are still subject to further development due to the lack of efficient energy storage systems. Bioenergy done right can transform the way we use our resources and land opening new markets for a bioeconomy. Getting it right with proper preparation, policies and monitoring can help bring both economic and environmental health and prosperity to Latin America and Africa.


Souza, G. M., Artaxo, P., Verdade, L. M., et al. (2018). Sustainable Bioenergy: Latin America and Africa. Paris: SCOPE. ISSN: 2412-0286