Policies must do more to support sustainable biomass

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

Biomass is playing an increasingly important role in the EU’s low carbon economy, but we are running out of time to ensure that policies support rather than prevent its sustainable use, says Dr Matthew Aylott.

Dr Matthew Aylott is a science writer for NNFCC, a specialist bio-based economy consulting firm which acts as an advisor to the UK government.

"As a source of energy, biomass can be used to meet peak demand in national electricity grids. It is also our only low carbon ‘drop in’ alternative to natural gas and liquid transport fuels. And as a source of chemical building blocks it provides a sustainable alternative to oil-based plastics and products.

However, we are in real danger of pushing ahead with policies that don’t support the efficient use of biomass and this is putting pressure on valuable resources, like water, fertiliser and land.

The FAO and OECD believe we can more than double the amount of land currently used to grow crops around the world, but once you account for the increased demand for food by a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and the protection of vital ecosystem services, you are left with between 250 to 800 million hectares of land which could be farmed ‘sustainably’.

When you consider that the total land area of France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined is less than 120 million hectares, you could be forgiven for thinking that land use concerns are overestimated. However, the market for biomass is growing rapidly.

NNFCC estimates that by 2030 the growth in bioenergy and bioplastics markets will use some 130 million hectares of land and by 2050 this could rise to 400 million hectares. And these are conservative estimates. If demand for these products is higher than expected, land use could be much higher, potentially reaching 900 million hectares.

The industry has a responsibility to ensure land is managed sustainably. Not just for environmental reasons, but also for economic reasons too. As competition for resources increases, this could potentially drive up feedstock costs and put greater pressure on water and fertiliser use.

But this is not an excuse for inaction. Politicians should not try and stifle growth in the biomass market as this will neither help combat climate change or prevent unsustainable practices. Only by working with the biomass supply chain can governments ensure land is managed in a sustainable way. 

To ensure we minimise the impact of bioenergy, biofuels and bio-based products on land use and food production, we must use our existing resources better. This can be achieved by using more non-food feedstocks like wastes, agricultural residues, algae and even woody ‘lignocellulosic’ crops.

However, converting these materials to useful products often requires ‘advanced’ technologies. By initially subsidising advanced processes like gasification – which converts biomass to a gas, which can be used to make fuels and chemicals – we will enable technologies, making them cost competitive with less sustainable alternatives until they no longer require subsidy support.

We should also invest in improving the productivity of our existing feedstocks. Increasing the yields of lignocellulosic crops like willow and Miscanthus by just 2 per cent a year would double production volumes by 2050 without any land expansion.

These same solutions will also help mitigate the impacts of indirect land use change – where the activity displaced by biomass cultivation is moved, causing environmental impacts elsewhere. By developing more sustainable practices and technologies now we can ensure bioenergy and biofuels meet the increasingly strict sustainability criteria outlined in policy – whether or not indirect emissions are included in future greenhouse gas reporting, as some have recommended.

Finally, we must push policies towards sectors with limited alternatives, like aircraft fuel and bioplastics. This should also encourage the low carbon electrification of road and rail transport, a long-term goal of the EU.

By facing up to these challenges we can deliver low carbon, sustainable bioenergy, biofuels and bio-based products."

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