EU bioenergy potential from a resource efficiency perspective

Jun 2013

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has produced a series of reports estimating the European Union's bioenergy potential in an environmental perspective and analysing its most efficient use to support greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation (EEA,2006, 2007, 2008). Understanding of key issues has since advanced, particularly regarding the crucial role of indirect land use change (ILUC) in determining environmental impacts of bioenergy. The EEA European Topic Centre on Spatial Integration and Analysis (ETC/SIA) produced a report in 2013 re‑evaluating Europe's bioenergy potential and providing further insights into:
• the potential GHG savings from different technological options to convert biomass to energy ('bioenergy pathways');
• how to bring a resource efficiency perspective into the design of bioenergy development;
• concerns about the GHG benefits of using forest biomass to produce energy ('carbon debt');
• the desirability of current bioenergy cropping trends from an environmental perspective.
This EEA report provides an analytical summary of the results of this ETC/SIA report, and includes additional qualitative analysis of the 'carbon debt' issue. It primarily addresses the agricultural sector as it is clearly the biomass source with greatest potential for growth and for adverse environmental impacts — often as a result of ILUC. The study also includes the estimated bioenergy potentials for the EU forest and waste sectors from earlier EEA reports in order to provide a complete analysis of the most resource efficient approach for reaching the EU 2020 bioenergy ambitions.
Firstly, this report updates the 2006 estimate of the agriculture bioenergy potential (while the forest and waste potentials remain as in 2006). In a second step, life cycle analysis and land use environment models are combined to estimate the GHG emissions and energy yields from different bioenergy pathways. The third step involves the development of three alternative futures ('storylines') to explore the influence of different environmental, technological and policy factors on the resource efficiency of EU bioenergy production.
The report's analysis delivers the following main findings:
• ILUC matters;
• The contrasting policy constraints deliver little variation in total bioenergy potential but larger difference in the energy crop mix;
• The bioenergy pathways also vary greatly in their ecosystem impacts;
• Current energy cropping trends are not 'environmentally compatible.
The report concludes that bioenergy's GHG efficiency and ecosystem impacts can vary significantly depending on the economic and policy constraints in place and the resulting bioenergy pathways. Where feedstock is sourced from waste or agricultural residues, it implies zero land use change and substantial advantages over fossil fuel energy in terms of both greenhouse gas efficiency and ecosystem impacts. Conversely, where biomass is derived from energy cropping, some bioenergy pathways lead to additional GHG emissions and other environmental impacts. Indirect land use change effects are particularly important in this regard and need to be addressed by the EU bioenergy policy framework. From a resource-efficiency perspective, the core message from this study is clear: bioenergy can play a valuable role in meeting society's energy needs while preserving our natural capital — but only if it focuseson the most resource-efficient use of biomass through the whole biomass-to-energy production chain. The analysis illustrates that policies aimed at making upstream parts of the bioenergy chain (i.e. the sourcing of biomass) environmentally compatible need to be combined with measures that stimulate improvements in other parts of the chain. This concerns particularly the downstream conversion approach but also includes all logistics and final end‑uses of bioenergy. Potentially adverse environmental effects connected to direct land use effects, including changes in land management, currently fall outside the EU bioenergy policy framework. Additional policy incentives and safeguards are needed to address such environmental impacts, particularly with respect to water resources and farmland biodiversity. The use of waste biomass and residues from forestry and agriculture is very favourable in a resource efficiency perspective. However, the question of carbon debt associated with the use of forest biomass from trees presents an environmental concern. Thisissue clearly requires further investigation as it potentially negates the GHG mitigation gains from a substantial part of the currently estimated forest bioenergy potential.

By: European Environment Agency (EEA)

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