IPCC scientist: Europe can ‘triple’ biomass production while strengthening its green goals

Although biomass has been vilified by NGOs for the environmental damage it can cause, it can also provide many ecosystem services, says André Faaij. [Oregon Department of Forestry / Flickr]

The European Union could “triple” the amount of biomass produced on a sustainable basis over the coming decades while helping restore land degraded by industrial pollution, poor agriculture, erosion and climate change, says André Faaij.

André Faaij is Director of Science at the Energy Transition unit of TNO, the Dutch independent research organisation. He is also Distinguished Professor at the Universities of Utrecht and of
Groningen, in The Netherlands.

Faaij has contributed to various reports, such as the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World and Global Energy Assessment and the IEA’s World Energy Outlook.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

  • Marginal degraded lands can be regenerated with a mixture of crops that produce biomass or biofuels as a by-product.
  • Replanting those lands with salt-tolerant species can be a way to regenerate those lands, protect them from further erosion, abate salinity problems, and get more carbon in the soil.
  • That would be biomass that has ecological benefits, would not compete with food, and would store more carbon on top of the produced biomass.
  • On a global scale, “hundreds of millions of hectares” of land can be used to support crops that help restore degraded or marginal lands.
  • In Europe, those lands represent “a few dozen million hectares” – such as semi-arid lands in Spain and Italy, and contaminated industrial lands, including even the Chernobyl area.
  • NGO argument that forests should remain untouched is “fundamentally flawed” because it ignores the fact that forests are suffering from climate change and will need maintenance to avoid ecological collapse. Productive forests also absorb more carbon.
  • Looking at the total production available, Europe could “triple the sustainable availability of biomass” while strengthening the other objectives of the Green Deal, like reforestation and afforestation.

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The biomass industry has been vilified by green activists for the environmental damage it can cause. As a scientist, you have contributed to the work of the IPCC on this topic. So, what is your opinion: is biomass as bad as activists say?

No, I wholeheartedly disagree with this. The sustainability criteria for biomass has been a topic of real scrutiny, intense debate, and good science, which does not back those claims.

First, the scientific base is there, and it is strong. And the balanced message is that, for sure, you can do very badly, like cut a virgin forest and burn it in an inefficient way, and have nothing replanted.

That is clearly a bad result.

But we also know what it means to have good biomass. So what does it mean? What do we need to do to get sustainable biomass from forests, cropping systems, replanting degraded lands, residues, etc.?

Take the example of eroded, degraded, marginal lands damaged by poor agriculture, overgrazing, or salinity problems. We have massive land surfaces of that, which is bad, and it is still a trend that is continuing.

Replanting those lands with salt-tolerant species can be a way to regenerate those lands, to protect them from further erosion, abate salinity problems, and get more carbon in the soil. It also helps water retention, which is especially important now with rainfall patterns that are getting more extreme.

So, there are many ecosystem services that can come from revegetating those lands. And on a global scale, we are talking about massive land surfaces.

That would be biomass that has ecological benefits, would not compete with food, and would store more carbon on top of the biomass that is produced. And a by-product of these ecosystem services would be biomass for energy and materials. Because at some point, you can harvest this and make sure that carbon uptake continues.

Are you talking about dedicated energy crops?

I’m now talking about regenerating marginal degraded lands. And that can be done with full-blown mixtures of crops, it doesn’t have to be a monoculture at all. On the contrary, you may want pieces of grasslands, you may want mixed lands, you may want agroforestry systems there as well if some food production is possible.

So compared to the situation we have now – monoculture, agriculture, or degraded lands – you have options to turn it into something better, and even much better. And we have the knowledge about this, so why would you not do it?

How much of that degraded land is now theoretically available?

On a global scale, it is hundreds of millions of hectares that would be able to support crop growth. In some cases, the land needs to be restored over decades, and in other cases, it is land that, with the right interventions, could be quite productive from the start.

There is a dire need of action on these types of land. And this can connect to things people already know, like the Green Belt Movement in Africa. It connects to the reforestation programs in China and India – the Ghats in India and the Loess Plateau in China. We are talking about millions of hectares per year of planted area. This is the scale that we need globally.

In Europe, those surfaces are smaller. But when you consider lands contaminated by industrialisation or metals – for example, the Chernobyl area – these pollutants can be collected by vegetation through phytoremediation schemes. And this could be very useful for Europe, in old mining sites and industrial areas for example. In those lands, biomass growth can help to gradually clean up the environment. So there are opportunities there.

We also need to adapt to climate change. For example, last summer in Belgium and Germany, there was very heavy rain in less than a week, causing heavy damage, with a price tag of about €38 billion.

One measure that could help to mitigate that is to replant the land area upstream. The conclusion in Belgium and Germany was pretty clear: we removed too much forests from those hills. In order to protect ourselves from these weather extremes and their consequences, reforestation is one answer.

And a by-product of that is more biomass because you need to maintain those forests.

This where there is a link between climate adaptation and sustainable biomass. It is never about only growing biomass, it is always about better land use, better agriculture, better forest management.

The need for climate adaptation is now with us, we need to adapt to warming temperatures and climate extremes. And nature-based solutions such as storing carbon, protecting soils, and water retention will be of increasing importance in the coming decades.

And that can also support a bio-based economy.

Do we know the amount of available degraded land in the European Union? Have studies been made to assess this potential?

There are many types of degraded lands, so you can have different estimates depending on the categories that you include.

It could be about a few dozen million hectares if we take the semi-arid lands in Spain and Italy, eroded land surfaces and the contaminated lands in Eastern Europe and old industrial zones of the West.

The Green Deal states it clearly: we need more forests. And one reason to have these forests is climate adaptation. It is already a policy target.

We have to realise that forests are under threat because of climate change. There are increasing risks of forest fires and diseases, like the recent outbreaks in Germany. We have more frequent fires in the Mediterranean and fires even in Siberia – six gigatons of CO2 was released just last summer due to forest fires alone.

So maintaining these forests, keeping them healthy and resilient, is a key way to keep the carbon in the forest. And that will deliver biomass as a by-product.

Seeing the woods: EU lays out plan to capture more carbon from forests

The European Commission on Wednesday (14 July) unveiled plans to build up carbon sinks, like forests and wetlands, as part of a broader package of climate legislation aimed at achieving a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

Some environmentalists argue that we should leave the forests alone and not harvest them because they store carbon, and it will take time for the forest to regrow and absorb this carbon again. They say we don’t have time because climate change is happening now and needs to be stopped this decade. What do you make of this?

I know that argumentation line very well, and I think it is fundamentally flawed.

First of all, when we talk about biomass from forests, we are not talking about forests in nature-protected areas. These are forests that we want to protect 100% because of biodiversity reasons – even if some of them may also need human intervention to keep them in good condition because of fires and diseases.

But that’s not the core of the biomass production. When we talk about production forests, which are used for timber, pulp, or bio-based applications like wooden houses, the by-product of this are the residues that come from that. And the moment the forest becomes productive, it will deliver more and more timber over the years, which also has carbon storage value, as well as biomass residue. So to put it simply, the more wooden houses we want, the more biomass residue we have.

And at the moment, you decide not to touch the production forest, it will continue storing carbon over time, but the amount will level off after some years because you reach saturation.

You can still claim that more carbon is stored, which is true. But as the carbon builds up, it also starts saturating and stops accumulating carbon at some point. So the carbon stays in place, and it stops building up.

And that is where I think the reasoning of some NGOs goes wrong. Because we have no guarantee that the forest will stay in place in the coming 100 years. Given the statistics we have today of forest fires, diseases, and also economic pressures, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the carbon will stay in place.

If a forest fire touches 12 million hectares in one season, the carbon stock that you think will be there for 100 years is just gone. You get no value from it, and it will definitely be destroyed because the fire will be so fierce. We saw it in North America, for example, where recovery is very hard.

This means that forest maintenance and keeping a production forest healthy will maximise the carbon uptake per hectare per year, and it can make the forest more diverse if your strategy is to have diverse plantings. And this keeps the forest resilient, focuses to preserve biodiversity, managed the micronutrient balance in the soil, etc. These are all things we know about good forest management and where we have very clear sustainability criteria and practices already in place.

This is not science fiction, it is current practice that exists today. The moment you have a forest in balance with the harvest, you see that there is no loss of carbon stock, and that more and more carbon is sequestered in wood products. So you have to do the right calculus for that.

This is why I think the assumptions behind the emotional reasoning of NGOs are fundamentally flawed. Because production forests as we know them in Scandinavia or Germany are in overall good maintenance condition.

European practices have proven over decades to store more carbon in productive forests, because that is economically clever. And that is also visible with the increasing and more carbon-rich forest area in Europe.

This is proven from decades of operations. And to deliberately ignore that, I think, is remarkable. Because keeping productive forests is a major opportunity to address climate change mitigation and adaptation.

So pleading for doing nothing is for me the worst-case scenario. And it will also damage biodiversity in the end.

Assuming these forest management practices get deployed on a bigger scale in the European Union, what is the potential for the contribution towards sustainable biomass?

This has been subject to a lot of research. Looking at the total production available – so not only from forests but also from better management of land for agriculture and livestock, marginal degraded lands and waste streams – we could in Europe triple the sustainable availability of biomass compared to the current level over the next decades.

And this is something that can be done in a sustainable way, in the coming decades, in a gradual process. Today, biomass is about 10% of the European energy supply, which is significant. If we lose those 10% we would really be going in the wrong direction.

And that’s total energy consumption?

Total energy consumption, that’s right. Europe has an energy consumption of roughly 70 exajoules, and we have about seven exajoules of bioenergy, including biogas, forest biomass residues, some biofuels, etc.

And we could multiply this threefold at the European level – on a sustainable basis, I insist on this point. Then we would be talking about 30% of energy supplies met by sustainable biomass in 2050 – so close to one-third of European energy supplies.

This is something that we could achieve in the coming decades, supported by the Green Deal. And also hopefully supported by an agricultural policy that targets climate change mitigation, a more sustainable and productive agriculture, and good soil management. Then you can achieve this result.

How much of the biomass that we currently use in Europe can be considered sustainable?

By far the largest share, over 90%, meets all the sustainability criteria. And this biomass comes from the type of forest management that we have just discussed: in countries like Finland, Sweden, or Denmark, which is smaller but is an excellent example of sustainable forest management practices.

There is low-tech biomass for example in France which is used for heating houses. But you cannot call it unsustainable. It is generally coming from natural harvest, from remainders of trees that dropped because of storms.

Residue use is generally very well balanced in terms of what the soil needs for good quality nutrient recycling. We have very detailed insights and practices on this. Manure, digestion, biogas is also something that contributes to recycling nutrients. So the range of biomass use in Europe is something that meets all the sustainability criteria that we talked about.

On biogas, there was a surprising target in the Commission’s REPowerEU plan, to have 35bcm of sustainable biomethane by the end of this decade. This target raised a few eyebrows among the industry because it’s very bullish. Do you think this is achievable?

Well, I was also a little bit surprised by that very ambitious target for biogas as an energy carrier. In terms of total numbers and biomass potential, this could be done. But I do not expect that all of it will go to biogas – it will preferably go to feedstocks for the chemicals industry or for biomaterials. It will go to advanced biofuels, it will go to industry maybe for negative emission concepts, and in part biogas.

I think biogas connects very well to wet biomass feedstocks, like manure and the wet waste streams. And it is possible also to produce synthetic methane from biomass gasification, for example. But when you do that, you are also competing with other efficient routes to get the biomass into the material or the energy supply.

So, even though I like to target, I would be more subtle on the carriers to produce that.

Campaigners hail 'historic breakthrough' on revised EU biomass rules

Environmental groups claimed victory earlier this week after the European Parliament’s environment committee voted on new rules clarifying what can be counted as “sustainable biomass” under the revised renewable energy directive. Others were more cautious though, saying the battle is far from over.

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