A major biomass conference and exhibition in Amsterdam last week provided a unique overview of the sector, including the vital role biomass plays in the transition to a low carbon economy.
After the historical Climate agreement at COP 21, international institutions and scientific organizations agree that biomass and the bio-based economy are crucial to meet the 2 degrees target of climate change. Scientific evidence indicates that 730 Gt (billion tonnes) out of the 1,000 Gt of carbon budget available to keep global temperatures below this threshold were already consumed, therefore the time we have to put in place effective measures is limited.
Low carbon solutions are needed that deliver now and the sustainable use of biomass is undoubtedly included in that, attendees at the 24th European Biomass Conference and Exhibition (EUBCE) heard. Bioenergy can provide 10 percent to 30 percent of all total CO2 emission reductions needed and this should be achieved by putting bioenergy in the integrated context of the bio-based economy, in order to maximise the efficiency of how this resource is used to produce renewable energy, food and materials.
A careful review of the available scientific literature indicates that mobilising one billion dry tons of ligno-cellulosic biomass by 2030 in Europe is possible and this can be done sustainably. This would mean doubling the current use of biomass and would be sufficient to meet the expected demand both for carbon neutral fuels and materials, without competing with food production.
Unsustainable displacement of food and loss of forest cover can be readily avoided by means of higher resource efficiency in agriculture, livestock management and by restoration of degraded lands. This can also provide major synergies between sustainable Bio-based economy and sustainable, resource efficient food production. State-of-the-art analysis shows that when agriculture and livestock are modernised over time, exploiting yield gaps and efficiency improvements in management, there is both enough food production capacity to feed the world with less land and to produce bioenergy on the surplus land. This can also lead to considerable improvements in carbon stocks on that same land, reduced water use per unit of output, lower GHG emissions and more efficient use of nutrients.
Such necessary improvements are also highly desirable from a food security perspective, alleviating poverty, enhancing rural development and making agriculture more resilient to climate change. Similar reasoning holds for forest management, where integrated strategies can enhance forest productivity, maintain or improve carbon stocks, protect biodiversity and maintain the vitality of forest. One of the biggest opportunities lies in the revitalisation of marginal and degraded lands by (re-)planting them with trees and grasses. Permanent vegetation cover can over time restore soil structure, water retention functions, minimise soil erosion and improve overall productivity. This changes the perspective on bioenergy from hedging problems to achieving synergies with better agriculture.
After decades of continuous research and technological development, a number of large scale demonstration plants is proving that biomass can be effectively converted into energy, advanced biofuels and bio-based products. Recognizing the value of those good examples is fundamental to build the consensus needed for finally setting a clear, stable European policy framework, which is still lacking, but is essential to enable the widespread development of the bio-based economy. The attention of policy makers and media has been focussed too much on possible negative effects of bioenergy. Attention needs to shift to the positive results that the bio-based economy can deliver in achieving the low carbon economy.
“This conference demonstrated that there are high level talents working on these issues” said Professor André Faaij, conference general chairman in his concluding remarks. “It is now about how do we link all this good work to the right arena. Now we need to ensure close interplay and engagement of the research community, the industry and the governance arena. I would like to call upon all the key players in the field, especially international bodies such as UN, FAO, IRENA, IEA, EC, to organize the debate and to give it the focus it needs to solve the problems to progress.”
Professor Faaij also launched the idea to form a coalition among the GBEP, the Global Environment Facility, the European Commission and the Energy Coalition of the world billionaires, to discuss how to support a series of large scale demonstrations of sustainable biomass production in different settings, integrating biorefineries, BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage), and bio-chemicals.