Bioenergy today, Bioenergy tomorrow.

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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A stable, flexible policy framework with a vision to facilitate investment and stimulate innovation will unleash bioenergy’s full potential as a flexible contributor towards climate neutrality that offers meaningful job creation and economic growth.

Right now, domestic energy production of renewables is the only energy source increasing within the EU27 mix, and is primarily led by bioenergy.

According to the newly published Deloitte study Towards an Integrated Energy System: Assessing Bioenergy’s Socio-Economic and Environmental Impact, biomass is Europe’s most important indigenous energy source, representing an impressive 21% of EU27 domestic energy production in 2019 (132 Mtoe).

Additionally, it underlines that in 2019, replacing fossil fuels for energy by biomass prevented 290 MtCO2eq emissions, equivalent to around 8% of total EU27 GHG emissions, including in fossil fuel-intensive sectors where carbon emissions are difficult to abate such as industry and transport.

Allied with this, the study highlights bioenergy’s socio-economic contribution: €34bn to EU GDP in 2019, and over 790,000 full-time equivalent positions. Beyond these figures, bioenergy also plays a key role in rural development and decentralisation of energy supply.

With 74% of bioenergy technology manufacturers being EU-based, the sector represents a globally competitive industry with right know-how and skills to maintain R&D leadership in the renewables ecosystem.

You may be familiar with the latest Eurostat figures showing that in 2020, the EU exceeded its target of 20% renewable energy in the EU-27, actually reaching 22.1%.

What’s that got to do with bioenergy, you ask?

Well, the best performers that helped drive this result was a group of four member states with between 50% and 85% bioenergy in their national energy mix.

Clearly, bioenergy is already strongly contributing today as a mature and sustainable co-enabler of Europe’s ongoing energy transition, as well as its positive socio-economic impact.

But what about tomorrow? What role does bioenergy have to play in Europe’s future integrated energy system?

“Overall, the bioenergy sector will continue growing in the future – as it has grown in the last dozen years – based on its cost-effectiveness and will continue being part of this smart integrated system” said Bioenergy Europe Secretary-General, Jean-Marc Jossart, “This growing bioenergy sector will be an essential element in tackling the major challenge of phasing out fossil fuels.”

This growth path was further evidenced by the Deloitte report, which highlighted that achieving EU emissions targets for 2030 and 2050 will require further development of bioenergy based on the latest projections by the European Commission, International Renewable Energy Agency, and International Energy Agency.

Specifically, the report estimates the average gross inland consumption of biomass for energy is showing a year-on-year increase of c.2% from 2019 up to 2050, reaching close to 220 Mtoe. Consequently, in 2050, the replacement of fossil fuels for energy by biomass will contribute 487 MtCO2eq to helping achieve net zero emissions.

Beyond this positive environmental impact, the report details how the increase in biomass consumption for energy up to 2050 will drive further job creation and economic opportunity throughout the EU. Each additional Mtoe of biomass for energy used would correspond to a €261 million contribution to EU GDP and creation of over 5,180 full time equivalent jobs.

So, the bioenergy sector has the growth potential to meet the predicted increase in renewables moving towards 2050.

But will tomorrow’s bioenergy be the same as we have today?

“The role of bioenergy will evolve over time. What we do today with bioenergy is not what we will do in ten years or in twenty. There is a time evolution of bioenergy as a versatile source of energy and other products in time”, according to Professor Julien Blondeau from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, “work today with highly mature technologies to address current challenges but at the same time look forward to enable future technologies to be developed”.

As the first renewable energy source to have mandatory sustainability criteria, the bioenergy sector sees the EU sustainability criteria as a real opportunity. If the EU can develop a viable, operational sustainability framework, it can then be rolled out to other energy sectors, food materials, and more.

So, what’s the right policy framework to enable this ‘bioenergy evolution’ and fully unlock bioenergy’s potential within the EU’s energy system integration?

First, Stability. Policy has to be stable enough to facilitate both short-term and long-term investment decisions, since the decisions companies make today will define their ability to help meet the EU’s climate targets on the path towards a carbon-neutral future. As underlined by Niels Torvalds MEP, industry needs the possibility to experiment with new technologies to find new solutions. Optimal policy design can’t happen in a void, and needs to properly take into consideration both the bioenergy industry’s varied realities across the EU as well as the views of civil society.

Second, flexibility. Policy has to be flexible enough to allow innovation and enable synergies between different sectors. Kamila Waciega, Director of Energy & Public Affairs at Veolia, underlined that today’s investment decisions will define our capability to meet 2030 targets. There’s a pressing need for a stable but also flexible enough framework, allowing innovation by operators along with universities and other sectors.

Third, a truly evidence-based approach that reflects the documented diversity we find among member states in terms of available resources and starting points, recognising that there is no oversimplified one-size-fits-all solution. It’s crucial to properly involve local level stakeholders to incorporate their diverse realities. Their input is key to finding not only the best usage for current solutions but also developing the right solutions to meet ever-evolving future needs.

The right stable, sufficiently flexible policy framework and incentives to facilitate investment and stimulate innovation will allow bioenergy to evolve over the coming decades as needed to continue playing a key role as a sustainable part of the transition to a carbon-neutral Europe.

If the EU sustainability policy framework is given sufficient time to develop and improve to meet our shared future challenges, bioenergy will be able to contribute a virtuous cycle of positive environmental impact and widespread socio-economic benefits.

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