Europe’s sustainable biomass potential is substantial

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Zoltán Szabó

Sufficient sustainable biomass can be produced within European borders to drive major bioeconomy development and all that is needed is recognition of this latent potential and enabling public policies, writes Zoltán Szabó.

Zoltán Szabó, PhD in environmental economics, is sustainability advisor in the bioenergy industry. He has experience in public administration, research, NGOs and business, working toward reconciling climate, energy, agricultural and environmental policies.

Debates about bioenergy’s contribution to climate change mitigation tend to focus on the bioenergy potential of developing countries. Surprisingly, this much publicised potential overlooks the opportunities to produce sustainable bioenergy crops much closer to home – here in Europe. In fact, Europe has large untapped potential for sustainable biomass production (even excluding forestry).

Crop yield increase, double cropping and utilisation of abandoned land offer substantial and largely unexplored potential for sustainable cropping, particularly in southern, central and eastern Europe. Sufficient sustainable biomass can be produced within European borders to drive major bioeconomy development. All that is needed is recognition of this latent potential and enabling public policies.

Sustainable intensification of cropping enables farmers to grow more with less, in other words to produce more food, feed, fibre, and fuel while using less water, land, energy, and other inputs, thus improving resource efficiency in farming with the help of new technologies. The avenues to achieving this are well known but substantially underutilised:

  • Reducing yield gaps: The reality of yield gaps (the difference between actual yields and agro-climatically achievable yields in the same region) is well known. Data show that this gap has no real sign of closing in central and eastern Europe.
  • Double-cropping: Second crops on the same land in a given year are increasingly facilitated by selective breeding of energy crops that utilise the entire growing season.
  • Under-utilised land: Productive use of large areas of this category of land is hindered by obstacles that prevent the realisation of its potential, especially in southern and eastern Europe where abandoned and degraded lands are plentiful.

Yield gaps show no signs of abating in central and eastern Europe. Global Yield Gap Atlas data for Poland suggest that average corn yields are about half of their potential. Poland’s yield gap exceeds 6 t/ha, as compared to 2.5 tons in Germany. Yield gaps for corn production in central and eastern Europe are more than 10 t/ha, another study reports. Average corn yields are around 6 tons/ha in Hungary, while they are above 10 tons in Austria, a neighbour country with similar soil and climatic condition. Corn yields have averaged under 6 tons/ha in Hungary over the past three decades, without a significant trend towards increased yields.

A recent research report covering three case study areas (one each Romania, Poland and Hungary) shows that Europe could sustainably produce additional bioenergy feedstock supplying 1.3% of the 2020 EU road transport energy use. Note that the three case studies cover only 6% of agricultural land in the EU.

Despite patchy statistical data, it is clear that there is considerable scope in southern and eastern Europe for cultivation of under-utilised land. Excluding land used for crops or fodder production and land under environmental agreements (e.g. buffer strips) one study estimated that there is between 1 and 1.5 million hectares of land that could have potential for energy crop cultivation. In addition, recent modelling studies suggest that there is likely to be significant abandonment of farmland in Europe over the next 20-30 years.

History shows that yield gaps do not close automatically, nor are abandoned lands necessarily utilised again. Data and science is clear that the potential is large, what is needed are cross-sectoral policies to acknowledge the window of opportunity in Europe. As of now, there are few policy initiatives to stimulate the necessary investments in sustainable crop production technology.

A great deal of the discussion in Europe has centred on the burden agriculture is imposing on the environment (soil, water, air, biodiversity). However, insufficient effort has been made to demonstrating that additional biomass can be produced sustainably. Sustainable intensification should not be confused with ‘intensive’ farming. Sustainable intensification is not about more intensive land-use. It is about maximising crop production for the best outcome across economic, environmental, climate and social dimensions, with resource efficiency as a guiding principle. The key to sustainable intensification is more efficient use of inputs and improved management techniques.

Precision farming techniques complemented by technologies such as drones and “big data” processing at landscape level are important elements of sustainable intensification. Taken together these point towards a paradigm shift in cropping, with far reaching consequences in bioenergy feedstock production. Resource efficiency in cropping is about to dramatically improve – only the right policy frameworks are needed to make it happen. It should be recognised that bioenergy crop production can be a driver of increasingly sustainable farming practices.

Agriculture is responsible for around a tenth of total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. Its potential in contributing to Greenhouse Gas emission reduction is largely unexploited. For instance, cropping is left out of international climate negotiations. As of now, no global climate regime includes measures to make use of the potential to any significant degree. Aiming to produce more biomass sustainably is one of the ways to bring agriculture closer to the climate change mitigation arena.

It is irrelevant for the European bioeconomy in which part of Europe biomass is produced. The whole European bio-based industry will benefit from an increased availability of biomass. After all Ukrainian corn is processed in ethanol plants in the UK or the Netherlands, and the same logic applies in a full blown bio-based industry of scale.

It is increasingly apparent that there is a vast potential in Europe to produce additional crop biomass sustainably. Crucially, all this promise can be achieved sustainably. Only the right policies to drive investments in sustainable intensification of cropping are needed to make it happen. Agricultural, climate and energy policies will all need to recognise the opportunity. 

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