On the plate or in the tank? Sustainable biomass means more than that!

Renewable resources can make an important contribution to global energy security and resource efficiency. However, since the available land is limited and biomass is also used as food and feed, chemical raw materials and energy sources, there can be competition for land.

Key questions in this context are – alongside food security and land use – the effects of biomass production on the climate, biodiversity, soil and water. In this field of tension the potentials are to be found and sustainably tapped.

Biomass in Germany

In Germany bioenergy (without imports) can sustainably meet up to 15 per cent of the primary energy demand if in parallel the cultivation of food and feed plants for material use increases and a third of food comes from organic farming. Currently biogas is generally produced from plants and liquid manure is used for electricity production and wood for heat production.

In terms of fuel, rapeseed is generally used to produce biodiesel and grains to produce ethanol. In terms of materials, the renewable resources are used in building materials, chemical products, paper/cardboard and textiles. And we eat them, too – including indirectly via feed for meat and milk production.

Biomass in the EU

In the EU the sustainable bioenergy potential amounts to approx. 20 per cent of energy consumption. As a result of agricultural policy, production developments and demand trends, a reduction of land available for food production is to be expected, even if agriculture and organic farming extensively increase.

In the case of increasing demand and high oil prices, biomass imports from Eastern Europe, South America, South-East Asia and Africa – e.g. palm oil from Indonesia and ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane – are an attractive option.

Oeko-Institut is developing standards for biomass imports and exports

Many countries want to increase their use of bioenergy, including Germany and other EU countries. For this purpose the production of reusable resources like wood, corn (maize), palm oil, and rapeseed are to be significantly increased.

However, this can conflict with sustainability targets – for example, when land for food production is displaced to cultivate energy crops; or when ecologically valuable woods and fenlands undergo land-use change.

What requirements does biomass have to fulfil to be sustainable?

And how is compliance with these criteria guaranteed nationally, in the EU, and globally? To answer these questions, Oeko-Institut carried out – on behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency and in cooperation with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU) – the project “Bio-global: Development of strategies and sustainability standards for the certification of internationally traded biomass”.

Within the scope of this project, which was sponsored by the German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety, discussions were held with actors and experts from more than 20 countries; international networks were set up and expanded, and policy decision-makers were advised.

Amongst other things, it was debated how possible climate gas emissions from direct and indirect land-use change can be taken into account in the calculation of greenhouse gas balances for biomass.

In order to limit the threat to biodiversity presented by the cultivation of energy crops, a risk minimization strategy was developed that can be used globally. It was tested in the three partner countries of Brazil, China and South Africa for degraded land.

In addition a series of requirements was elaborated which are geared to ensuring that biomass production does not lead to water scarcity or a reduction in water quality.

Bioenergy? Yes, but the right way!

Many of our findings and research results have been implemented in regulatory and standardization processes, e.g. in the German sustainability ordinances for bioenergy, the EU Renewable Energy Directive and the Global Bioenergy Partnership.

In the future we will generally be pursuing two key strategy goals in this field:

Sustainable biomass for all sectors: The debate about bioenergy and sustainability requirements can be seen as the vanguard, compared to “conventional” agriculture. The goal is therefore to establish sustainability requirements in other biomass sectors (food, feed, industrial raw materials) as well.

The long-term strategy: The key formula for a long-term strategy for sustainable biomass is to use renewable resources primarily as raw materials to replace non-renewable resources like mineral oil. Bio-crops for this purpose should be cultivated on land that is not in competition with food and feed production. Instead of cultivating crops to produce bioenergy (as is usual today), only waste and residual biomass should be used for energy purposes in the future. In this way a cascaded use of renewable resources can be practiced, by means of which competition is avoided.