Increasingly, agricultural crops and residues are seen as sources of feedstocks for energy to displace fossil fuels. A wide range of materials have been proposed for use, including grain, crop residue, cellulosic crops (e.g., switchgrass, sugarcane), and various tree species (Edmonds, 2004; Cerri et al., 2004; Paustian et al., 2004; Sheehan et al., 2004; Dias de Oliveira et al., 2005; Eidman, 2005). These products can be burned directly, but can also be processed further to generate liquid fuels such as ethanol or diesel fuel (Richter, 2004). Such fuels release CO2 when burned, but this CO2 is of recent atmospheric origin (via photosynthetic carbon uptake) and displaces CO2 which otherwise would have come from fossil carbon. The net benefit to atmospheric CO2, however, depends on energy used in growing and processing the bioenergy feedstock (Spatari et al., 2005).
The competition for other land uses and the environmental impacts need to be considered when planning to use energy crops (e.g., European Environment Agency, 2006). The interactions of an expanding bioenergy sector with other land uses, and impacts on agro-ecosystem services such as food production, biodiversity, soil and nature conservation, and carbon sequestration have not yet been adequately studied, but bottom-up approaches (Smeets et al., 2007) and integrated assessment modelling (Hoogwijk et al., 2005; Hoogwijk, 2004) offer opportunities to improve understanding. Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe are promising regions for bio-energy, with additional long-term contributions from Oceania and East and Northeast Asia. The technical potential for biomass production may be developed at low production costs in the range of 2 US$/GJ (Hoogwijk, 2004; Rogner et al., 2000).
Major transitions are required to exploit the large potential for bioenergy. Improving agricultural efficiency in developing countries is a key factor. It is still uncertain to what extent, and how fast, such transitions could be realized in different regions. Under less favourable conditions, the regional bio-energy potential(s) could be quite low. Also, technological developments in converting biomass to energy, as well as long distance biomass supply chains (e.g., those involving intercontinental transport of biomass derived energy carriers) can dramatically improve competitiveness and efficiency of bio-energy (Faaij, 2006; Hamelinck et al., 2004).