If bioenergy goes boom — the switch from oil to bioenergy is not risk free

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Article Published 16 Feb 2009 Last modified 11 May 2021
8 min read
Bioenergy is not new. For millennia, people have been burning wood. The industrial revolution in the mid-1800s brought so called 'fossil fuels', mainly coal and oil, to the fore. However, fossil fuels are becoming more difficult to find and extract, more expensive, and subject to intense political debate.

Bioenergy is on the verge of becoming big business. It is already the dominant renewable energy source in Europe and its production is likely to increase greatly in the coming decades. [Renewable energy includes energy derived from wind, sea, sun, hydropower, etc.] Biofuels have been hailed as a good way of greening transport and avoiding expensive oil imports.

The subject of biofuels made world headlines for negative reasons in 2008, mainly in association with rising food prices. The EEA's work on biofuels is restricted to the environmental pros and cons. Even here, there is controversy.

A move towards large scale bioenergy production bears considerable environmental risks, mainly in terms of land-use change. Soils and plants are the two largest stores of CO2 on earth — containing twice as much carbon as our atmosphere. Converting forest, peat or grasslands en masse to biofuel crops would release more CO2 than it would save.

Expanding arable crop production in Europe to satisfy the combined food and fuel demand would have serious impacts on Europe's biodiversity and damage our soil and water resources.

Knock-on effects, so-called 'indirect land-use changes', would impact elsewhere in the world: as Europe cuts back on food exports, other areas of the world would increase food production to fill the gap. Impacts on global food prices could be significant.

However, risks within Europe could be lessened with the right choice of crops and management. Biofuels made from waste, from crop or forestry residues for example, do offer environmental advantages. In this context, the EEA has been looking at how the impending bioenergy boom might develop, and considering whether it can provide
the energy we need without damaging the environment.


Biomass: refers to living and recently dead biological matter. This can be from crops, trees, algae, agricultural, forest residues or waste streams.

Bioenergy: all types of energy derived from biomass, including biofuels.

Biofuel: liquid transport fuels made from biomass. [The term biofuel can be used for all fuels (solid, liquid or gas) for any purpose derived from biomass. However, in the context of this analysis it refers specifically to fuels for transport.]

Rushing to renewables

The European Commission has proposed a mandatory target: 20 % of all European energy should come from renewables (that's all renewable sources: wind, solar, wave, etc. as well as bioenergy) by 2020. At the moment, renewables account for 6.7 % of European energy consumption. Two thirds of this comes from biomass.

The European Commission is also keen to promote biofuels — fuel for transport — as diversification is particularly important in transport because of its dependence on oil.

The transport sector is also increasing greenhouse gas emissions and eating up emissions savings achieved by other sectors.

The Commission has therefore proposed that biofuels make up 10 % of road transport fuel by 2020, providing they can be certified as sustainable. Data from 2007 show that biofuel makes up 2.6 % of road transport fuel in the EU.

To achieve 10 %, the European Union must increase production and imports of biofuel at a time when biofuels are at the centre of complex ecological and economic debates.

The EU biofuel target is surrounded by more and more debate. The European Parliament has recently called for a guarantee that 40 % of the 10 % target will come from sources that do not compete with food production. The EEA's own Scientific Committee has warned that increasing the share of biofuels used in transport to 10 % by 2020 is overambitious and should  be suspended.

Global impacts — food prices and land-use change

Promoting biofuels and other bioenergy in Europe inevitably triggers direct and indirect effects elsewhere. 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 is likely to be filled in part by palm oil. However, this would result in the loss of rainforest, as trees in countries such as Indonesia are felled to facilitate the extra palm crops.

Worldwide, biofuel demand is one of many factors contributing to the recent rise in food prices, along with droughts in key producer countries, increasing meat consumption and rising oil prices, etc. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that current and proposed biofuel support measures in the EU and US increase average wheat, maize and vegetable oil prices by about 8 %, 10 % and 33 %, respectively, in the medium term.

Increasing world food consumption, and the additional demand for biofuel, is leading to an expansion of world cropland at the expense of natural grasslands and tropical rainforest. This is important because deforestation and farming practices are currently responsible for an estimated 20 % of global greenhouse gas emissions. Large scale conversion of forests to cropland increases this share and has serious impacts on biodiversity.

Wildlife, and water quantity and quality could also suffer if large areas are converted from natural habitats or traditionally farmed areas, and brought into intensive production for bioenergy.

Fig. 1 / Final energy consumption of biofuels

Visible impacts

Recent scientific attempts to estimate the impacts of increased bioenergy production have started to show results and patterns and the EEA is keen to draw attention to these.

A study in Brazil used satellite images and ground surveys to show that the rate of forest conversion to cropland in the Amazon is correlated with global soy bean prices — the higher the price of soy, the more rainforest is felled. And there is little doubt that demand for bioethanol is driving up the price as soybean acres are converted to corn crops for US bioethanol.

Meanwhile, Tim Searchinger and researchers from Purdue University, USA, used a global agro-economic model to explore how large scale growth of corn and switchgrass for bioethanol in USA could shift production of food crops elsewhere in the world, where forests and grasslands are converted to arable to fill the food gap.

Their research estimates that greenhouse gas emissions associated with bioethanol will be higher than those associated with fossil fuel use, for 50 years or more. This is because grassland and forests act as CO2 stores. Converting them to a crop type suitable for producing biofuel would do away with this storage function. It would take decades for the benefits to outweigh the negatives.

The impacts on biodiversity and natural resources such as water are more difficult to measure. Increased corn production in the mid-West United States, for example, threatens marine life in the Gulf of Mexico, where a dead zone more than 20 000 km2 has been created by the high nutrient inputs from the Mississippi. According to one recent study, meeting the 2022 targets in the US energy bill will increase nitrogen loads in the Mississippi by 10–34 %.

Modelling the future

In 2006 an EEA study estimated that 15 % of projected European energy demand in 2030 could be met with bioenergy derived from agricultural, forestry and waste products, using only European resources. This estimate is referred to as Europe's 'biomass potential'. The study imposed a set of conditions protecting biodiversity and minimising waste to ensure the 'biomass potential' was not damaging to the environment.

Following this, in 2008 the EEA used the Green-XENVIRONMENT model, originally designed to study renewable electricity markets, to analyse how to use this environmentally compatible 'biomass potential' in the most cost-effective way from an environmental point of view.

The study suggests that the most cost-effective way of using the 'modelled' biomass potential would be to supply 18 % of Europe's heat, 12.5 % of its electricity and 5.4 % of its transport fuel from biomass by 2030.

By decreasing fossil fuel use in all three sectors, this could cut 394 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. Even greater emissions reductions would be achieved if policies were put in place to prioritise the use of Combined Heat and Power (CHP) technology in electricity and heat generation. This process harnesses the heat that is a by-product of
energy production.

There are costs, of course. Enhancing bioenergy use is around 20 % more expensive than a similar model of conventional energy by 2030. Ultimately, consumers would bear this cost.

Developments since this work was started, especially increases in global food prices, indicate that the 'biomass potential' estimates are on the high side: less land is likely to be available in Europe for growing bioenergy crops. Also, high oil prices could also affect the results.

However, a clear message still emerges from the exercise: it would be better, in terms of costs and climate mitigation, to prioritise bioenergy for electricity and heat generation using CHP plants rather than focus on fuel for transport.

Looking ahead

To avoid the negative impacts of a switch to bioenergy described above, we need strong policies at international level to prevent land-use changes adding to environmental problems in the pursuit of bioenergy. The challenge is clearly global, and we need a global debate on how to halt loss of biodiversity and address climate change at the same time, while taking into account the global need for increased food production and the daunting price increase in oil.

EEA researchers believe that Europe should actively seek to generate as much bioenergy as possible domestically whilst sustaining a balance between food, fuel and fibre production, and without compromising ecosystem services. We should move on from biofuels, and begin serious research and development of advanced biofuels (see box). And let's do it in a way that considers all the environmental impacts, including effects on soil, water and biodiversity as well as greenhouse gas emissions. In this way the EU can take the lead in building a truly sustainable bioenergy sector.

Promise of the next generation

Second generation biofuel production processes can use a variety of non-food feedstocks. These include waste biomass, wood, the stalks of wheat or corn, and special energy or biomass crops such as Miscanthus.

Second generation biofuels can lead to more substantial greenhouse gas emission reductions and can reduce other adverse effects such as fertiliser use but it is unlikely that they will be available in time to make a substantial contribution to the target of 10 % transport biofuels by 2020. A lot more research is needed on these production processes and their impacts and opportunities. Moreover, competition for land and water between dedicated energy crops and food crops will likely remain.

Signals 2009 report  This article is a chapter from EEA signals 2009 - read the full report in English and other languages


Donner, S. D. and Kucharik, C. J., 2008. Corn-based ethanol production compromises goal of reducing nitrogen expert by the Mississippi river. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 105: 4 513–4 518.
EEA, 2006. How much bioenergy can Europe produce without harming the environment. EEA Report No 7/2006.
EurObserver. Biofuels Barometer:
OECD, 2008. Economic assessment of biofuel support policies. Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation, Paris.


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