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Bioenergy Growing Bioenergy Use in Europe Raises Question of Sustainability

Editor: Dominik Stephan

Biomass is still a boom market – But, especially in the EU, the debate of food vs. fuel and unsustainable land use for palm oil and ethanol production have cast a bad light on biomass projects. Now, a report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) states that bioenergy production will have to adapt resource efficiency principles to be succesful in the long run...

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Average annual growth for renewable heating and cooling (RES-H/C) energy for all 27 European Union Member States (in percent)
Average annual growth for renewable heating and cooling (RES-H/C) energy for all 27 European Union Member States (in percent)
(Source: EEA)

Bioenergy, that is any energy from biomass, whether for heating, power generation or transport., is an important part of the renewable energy mix: Already today, bioenergy accounts for around 7.5 % of the EU's energy bill. This figure could easily rise to 10% in 2020, the EEA indicates, making up for approximately half of the projected renewable energy output.

Bioenergy should be produced in line with EU objectives to use resources more efficiently, the report says. This means reducing the land and other resources needed to produce each unit of bioenergy and avoiding environmental harm from bioenergy production. According to the EEA analysis, the most efficient energy use of biomass is for heating and electricity as well as advanced biofuels, also called ‘second generation’ biofuels. First generation transport biofuels, for example, biodiesel based on oilseed rape or ethanol from wheat, are shown to be a far less efficient use of resources.

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A Change in Energy Crops is Needed

Building on previous analysis, the report shows that the current energy crop mix is not favourable to the environment. The report recommends a broader mix of crops to reduce environmental impacts. Specifically, this should include perennial crops, which are not harvested annually – for example energy grasses or short rotation willow plantations. This would enhance, rather than harm, ‘ecosystem services’ provided by farmland – such as flood prevention and water filtration.

Is Bioenergy Really 'Carbon–Neutral'?

Bioenergy is often considered ‘carbon neutral’, as the carbon dioxide released in combustion is assumed to be compensated by the CO2 absorbed during plant growth. However, as shown in this report, indirect land use change can negate any greenhouse gas savings from biofuel production based on energy crops. This is due to the displacement of crop production onto previously unused land, which can lead to the conversion of forests and savannah to agriculture. Such land use change harms biodiversity and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

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