Bioenergy sustainability projects under the Horizon 2020 programme

FAO, together with twelve partners from a number of European Countries as well as Ukraine, is engaged in two research projects that revolve around bioenergy sustainability in underutilized, marginal and contaminated sites, known as MUC lands, in the context of Horizon 2020. The responsible production of feedstock for biofuels through well-designed sustainable biomass value chains, can enhance soil health and promote green resilience practices in agriculture, thus serving the objectives of the European Green Deal and fostering the bioeconomy.

The first of these two projects is BIOPLAT-EU, a Horizon 2020 project started in 2018 that intends to provide farmers, bioenergy traders, investors as well as fuel and energy companies with a user-friendly tool for quick assessments of the sustainability in terms of environmental, social and techno-economic impacts of bioenergy value chains found on MUC lands. This work made full use of advanced remote sensing techniques and maps (e.g. Copernicus data) and of the GBEP methodologies – appropriately adapted – for assessing bioenergy sustainability, packed in a web-based software platform available on the project’s website. The project is entering its final stages and by April 2020 the beta version of the software will be available for testing and fine tuning to a restricted set of bioenergy experts (if any from the GBEP community is interest to contribute to the testing please inform the Secretariat). The tool can offer the opportunity to assess and monitor bioenergy sustainability of existing bioenergy plant and value chains in Europe but its main strength is the provision of instruments to plan sustainable bioenergy developments that have zero impact on food security and land use changes.



Pictured above is one of the case study sites of the BIOPLAT-EU project. Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is cultivated on previously abandoned land in a field in western Hungary. The biomass once harvested will be used as feedstock for a local biogas plant. The project is building a system to offer users a way to assess the sustainability, based on selected GBEP indicators opportunely adapted, to serve as a decision-making tool for the market uptake of sustainable bioenergy in Europe and Ukraine.

Above is a screenshot of the mobile application of the BIOPLAT-EU platform which runs on a case study in Italy. Existing Biomass Processing Plants are mapped, together with all necessary mappable features that define a sustainability assessment of bioenergy value chains (e.g. geographical features, climatic features, demographics, income and population statistics, energy statistics etc) to work in synergy with GIS information on land cover and soil properties (e.g. heavy metal contamination) to describe with accuracy but with only a few clicks (or taps) a complete sustainability assessment of the chosen bioenergy pathway.

BIKE is a new Horizon 2020 project to support the market uptake of safe and reliable biomass value chains, based on improved farming practices, as well as on the cultivation of crops on abandoned and degraded land, that can deliver food, feed, fuels and materials with low risk of generating indirect land use changes.

The project supports the implementation of the RED II directive, by providing clear scientific evidence for policymakers and market operators, in addition to a full sustainability assessment and a certification module for specific low ILUC risk biomass value chains, as well as guidelines and recommendations to promote their large-scale replication.

The RED II Directive requires that a minimum of 3.5% of energy in the transport sector comes from advanced biofuels by 2030, and introduced a cap and a gradual phase out for high ILUC-risk biofuels, intended as those produced from food and feed crops that require significant expansion into land with high carbon stock, such as forests, wetlands and peatlands. At the same time, it also introduced an exemption for low ILUC-risk biofuels, defined as those resulting either from crops grown on abandoned or severely degraded land, or obtained from improved farming practices, such as cover cropping.

Yet, to meet the goals of the RED II Directive, policymakers need to be able to objectively identify biofuels that use “low ILUC-risk” practices, and, market actors need to understand which criteria and standards their innovations must follow.

BIKE adopts a value chain approach to analyse four case studies that demonstrate economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable production of low ILUC risk biofuels. Thanks to its experience with the assessment of bioenergy sustainability through the use of the GBEP Indicators, FAO is contributing to this crucial action of the project.

Two case studies focus on the cultivation of castor and perennial grasses in abandoned and degraded land, for the production of hydrotreated vegetal oil (HVO) and ethanol respectively. A virtuous exploitation of unused and abandoned land creates new opportunities for people living in rural areas. BIKE addresses their needs by proposing solutions linking circular economy models to sustainable agricultural practices, with potential for replicability across Europe and abroad.

Two other cases focus on agricultural solutions that can deliver both food and additional biomass, while increasing the yields per unit of land. One of these is a climate-positive farming system based on the use of Brassica carinata as an oil crop for HVO production, grown in multiannual rotations with traditional food crops. The other is the production of biomethane in decentralized units, using both animal waste and cover crops, grown in rotation with food crops (BiogasDoneRight model), and its further conversion into diesel and methanol.

The project started operation in September 2020 and will deliver its products at the end of 2023.