Bioenergy and biofuels: the big picture

Article Published 27 Jan 2009 Last modified 11 May 2021
5 min read
The findings and expertise of the European Environment Agency (EEA) on the subject of biofuels highlight that bioenergy can play an important role in combating climate change, specifically if biomass is used for heating and electricity. However, increasing production and use of first-generation agrofuels risks not achieving the required global and EU greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reductions and can lead to adverse effects on biodiversity, water and soil. In Europe and globally we need strong sustainability criteria for all energy uses of biomass, not only for agrofuels.

The issues around agro- and advanced biofuels

Agrofuels have been heralded as an important way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport in the short term. At the same time, they may improve the security of energy supply by mobilising internal biomass resources in the EU or by diversifying imports. In the longer term, it is hoped that advanced biofuels will take over this role. However, will biofuels live up to this promise? The EU biofuel target is surrounded by more and more controversy, and the EEA’s scientific committee has warned that increasing the share of biofuels used in transport to 10 per cent by 2020 is overambitious and should therefore be suspended, as widely reported in the European press (see the EEA Scientific Committee’s opinion on biofuels).

Producing energy biomass in an environmentally-compatible way

The challenge is to ensure that promoting agrofuels and advanced biofuels to improve the environmental performance of the transport sector - greening transport - is not at odds with the wider goal of greening society at the global level. We need to consider all environmental aspects, inside of Europe and outside. Not just avoidance of GHG emissions, but also the protection of biodiversity, water and soil resources.

It is essential that the broader bioenergy debate is not swallowed up by a discussion of biofuels alone. Biomass can also be used to replace fossil fuels in electricity and heat production. Biofuels and other energy uses of biomass are thus competing for the same resource — either directly, as the same crops can often be used for both purposes, or indirectly, because they are competing for land on which they are to be grown. And they are also competing for land with other agricultural production.

These simple facts mean that agrofuels, advanced biofuels and other bioenergy should never be looked at by policymakers in an isolated fashion, but always as a part of integrated policies to increase the use of renewables and in the framework of agricultural and international trade policies.

One of the major causes of global warming is agro-industrial farming itself. Moreover, deforestation and land-use change, linked to the expansion of agriculture and energy crops, especially in developing countries with large tropical rainforests, leads to massive carbon dioxide emissions (about 20 per cent of global emissions), since carbon stored in the soils is released (especially from peat lands).

For example, in Europe we could produce biodiesel from rapeseed oil in a sustainable manner, but less rapeseed oil would be available for food production inside and outside Europe. The gap might be filled in part by palm oil – but this could entail the loss of rainforest in countries such as Indonesia. On the other hand, replacing petrol with ethanol from sugar cane in Brazil might be sustainable in terms of direct effects, but food and feed production could be pushed into marginal areas, enhancing deforestation in the rainforest.

EEA work on the field

Work we have done at the EEA analysing the situation in Europe can help shed light on some of the challenges and opportunities we face. Already in 2004, our briefing 'Transport biofuels: exploring links with the energy and agriculture sectors' aimed to raise awareness of the issues. Our work shows that bioenergy can play a significant role in achieving the 20 per cent renewables target by 2020.

In 2006, the EEA report 'How much bioenergy can Europe produce without harming the environment?' projected that up to 15 per cent of energy demand in 2030 could be covered by bioenergy based on EU resources in an environmentally compatible way. We used a set of environmental assumptions to ensure the estimated European biomass potential was environmentally compatible, especially protecting biodiversity and minimising waste. Further technical reports on forestry and agriculture have followed – such as the report ' Estimating the environmentally compatible bioenergy potential from agriculture'. However, all this work could not yet take into account possible indirect effects outside Europe due to the displacement of food crops. In addition, our modelling framework assumed much faster progress on the introduction of second-generation technology and environmentally friendly crops than seems likely on the basis of current trends.

Since publishing its report in 2006, the EEA has done further work to investigate the best ways of using the biomass potential in Europe up to 2030. The picture that is beginning to emerge is very clear:

  • there is little doubt at the present time that using biomass to replace coal in electricity and heat production gives far higher reductions in GHG emissions at far lower cost than producing and using agrofuels for transport, and
  • there is therefore a strong need for integrated energy , agricultural and environmental policies to ensure that this is the case.

The challenge is global

The criteria set out in the proposal adopted by the commission in January address these issues inside and outside Europe. The growing concern about the lack of scrutiny and traceability of bioenergy production outside Europe may mean that a more prudent course of action would be to set domestic targets for bioenergy before expanding demand beyond European borders.

We must keep the international dimension at the forefront of our minds. We started losing rainforest long before the substantial use of energy crops and biofuels were ever dreamt of. The world’s need for food is already a very important driver of land use change. Biomass for energy should not further contribute to the loss of virgin forests and savannahs, nor increase GHG emissions. So we really need a much wider global debate on how to halt loss of biodiversity and address climate change at the same time, and also take into account the global need for increased food production. Thus it is important to include actions to reduce global deforestation into a global post-2012 climate change agreement. 

In the meantime, Europe should seek to generate as much bioenergy as possible domestically whilst sustaining a balance between food, fuel and fibre production, and without compromising ecosystem services. Let’s move on from agrofuels, and be hard-headed about advanced biofuels. In this way the EU can take the lead in building a truly sustainable bioenergy sector in Europe and worldwide.



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