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The European Union and its Member States are increasingly putting focus on biomass and how it can support the transition towards a sustainable, climate-neutral economy. We interviewed Katarzyna Kowalczewska, EEA expert on agriculture and LULUCF integration, about EEA’s recent publication “The European Biomass Puzzle” and why the topic requires careful consideration from policymakers.
What is biomass and why is it important for environment and climate goals?
Biomass is a term applied in many different contexts. In the context of our recent EEA report, biomass means all vegetation forming ecosystems, sequestering carbon, and providing food and feedstocks for a wide range of bio-based materials. These materials are used in many different sectors, such as construction, energy, transport, furniture and textile industries. Biomass can also be reused and recycled to make the best use of bio-based materials and products in relation to their economic and environmental value.
There is strong competition for biomass because the same type of biomass can have multiple end-uses and functions, including for nature and biodiversity. Biomass removes CO2 from the atmosphere and stores carbon both in living biomass and biomass products. Biomass replaces fossil and mineral-based materials with bio-based materials and products, which can reduce greenhouse gas emission. Biomass also needs to be restored for nature purposes and biodiversity to maintain the diversity of European landscapes.
The European Green Deal foresees biomass fulfilling several roles in relation to food and energy security, nature conservation, pollution reduction, and climate change mitigation and adaptation. How these roles will ultimately reinforce or compete with each other is still to be determined and is much dependent on policy incentives set in place and policy implementation.
What was the aim of the EEA biomass report?
The idea of the report came from discussions between EEA colleagues working on various topics in the Agency. We found out that within thematic work areas we are looking at biomass from different perspectives. Also we found out that we actually don’t know how much biomass would be needed to reach the objectives of the European Green Deal and if constantly increasing biomass demand can be sustainably provided in the EU.
We therefore decided to collect facts about biomass origins and flows, and the aim was to increase awareness of the numerous roles and functions of biomass. The aim was also to better understand co-benefits and trade-offs and place them in the context of the EU policies, and the relationship between ecosystems, carbon sequestration, biomass production and consumption. By providing facts and analysis, the EEA biomass report can be used to facilitate discussion between different stakeholders on several topics related to biomass.
How is biomass currently used in the EU-27? What are the key trends?
Most of the EU's biomass supply is produced within the EU and the two main categories we focused in our report are agricultural biomass and woody biomass from forests.
Based on the most recent data on EU biomass flows by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (JRC), more than half of agricultural biomass is used for animal feed and bedding and only about 13% is used for plant-based food for human consumption. Smaller uses include biofuels, fibres and materials. For almost a fifth of agricultural biomass the use is unknown, which is an important knowledge gap for analysis of the footprint made by its different uses.
Woody biomass is used as material for construction, furniture and other wood products, for paper and packaging, and as a source of energy. Renewable energy consumption in the EU is dominated by biomass. Biomass accounted for more than half of the overall EU's renewable gross final energy consumption in 2021. There has been a significant increase in the use of solid biomass, particularly woody biomass, to produce bioenergy in almost all Member States between 2000 and 2020. Various types of woody biomass contribute to bioenergy through combustion.
What are the key challenges in managing biomass?
The main challenge is that scientific research indicates that not enough EU-sourced biomass will be available to fulfil all the envisaged roles in the European Green Deal in the future. Biomass supply remains limited by land area, vegetation growth, changing climate and global trade. Since there are increasing and competing demands for using biomass in different sectors, including for nature conservation, we need to prioritise biomass uses. This means that stakeholders will have to understand and discuss various trade-offs between reaching policy objectives and how to use the available biomass now while safeguarding its future supply.
Different types of biomass production and use and have different impacts on ecosystems, and therefore a more holistic approach to biomass management is needed. This is also because the conditions of ecosystems that deliver biomass are, in general, not good and declining, and the forest carbon sink, on which we rely so much to meet 2030 and 2050 climate targets, has been on a declining trend in recent years. To make this biomass puzzle more complicated, primary production sectors like agriculture and forestry are already experiencing climate change impacts that threaten carbon sinks and biomass production even more.
Policy interventions on land use and land management, especially those affecting forests and agriculture, will deliver results over the next decades. When planning for 2030, 2050 and beyond, decisions are already needed today.
How is climate change affecting biomass production such as crops and forests in the EU-27?
Climate change has impacted biomass production from agriculture and forest lands in the EU through both shift in climate zones — which includes changes in temperature and precipitation — changes in the growth seasons, and through increasing frequency and severity of extreme events. These impacts have affected European agriculture and forest lands both positively and negatively, and the same is projected in the future.
Studies looking at long-term climate trends on European crops have shown evidence of crop yield reductions for maize, wheat and other cereals in southern Europe due to increasing temperatures, decreasing precipitation and a shift in seasons. In other parts of Europe, changes in temperature and precipitation positively impact some crop species.
Severe and frequent droughts occurring in the EU have negatively impacted forest growth and stability. Such events have caused habitat loss, local species migration and spread of invasive alien species, and contributed to forest fires. Studies projecting future climate change impacts on forests are inconclusive and show large variations per country, region and species. This is because a forest's response to climate change can be complex and multilayered. Typically, forests that have rich biodiversity are more resilient to the effects of climate change than monotypic forests.
What are some examples of policy goals that relate to biomass?
Under the European Green Deal, a large amount of thematic and cross-cutting legislation has recently been adopted or is under development that is relevant to biomass production and consumption. The challenge is to ensure that both EU and national policies on biomass are coherent and carefully considered.
Overall, biomass is needed in many ways for decarbonisation as it can replace carbon-intensive fossil fuels or construction materials. However, this increases demand for harvested biomass, which in turn could drive land use changes and harm ecosystems. At the same time, carbon removal targets recognise nature as a solution and call for enhanced carbon sequestration in forests and other land ecosystems. This may impact the availability of biomass for replacing carbon-intensive materials and products.
Moreover, biomass production aspects are linked to policy goals for biodiversity and ecosystem conservation call for using fewer external inputs, less intensive practices and less harmful chemical substances while focusing on nature-based solutions. These policies are generally expected to benefit the quality and quantity of biomass stocks left in nature but they are also expected to lead to a reduction in net biomass production for use in the bioeconomy. In addition, a transition to a circular economy can reduce demand for primary biomass materials and increase the availability of secondary biomass, for instance through recycling.
As you can see there are some challenges when it comes to using biomass in relation to the European Green Deal objectives. A particular biomass use might benefit one individual policy goal but might be perceived as a disservice in relation to another policy goal. Our report aims to contribute to policy debate by providing facts and analysis.
As next steps, we are aiming to reach out to the various stakeholders and our Eionet network with the results of the report to understand better the knowledge and information needs, and how EEA can contribute further to solve the biomass puzzle.