Sustainable use of biomass – finite diversity carefully handled

Biomass surrounds us in everyday life. We encounter it daily in many different forms. Biomass is used, for example, to produce not only food, but also paper products, bioplastics and garments. Bioenergy produced from biomass is also the most dominant renewable energy source used in the world today, comprising almost 80 percent of the total supply.

There is a reason for the frequent utilization of biomass: it has a very wide range of uses and is seemingly infinitely available since it can be re-grown. The versatile advantages of raw materials, however, are to be handled with caution, given the long list of potential dangers and problems. Food security tops this list, which is in strong competition with bioenergy production, but should always take priority. Careful handling of this resource means attention should be paid to how and where the biomass was grown, when it is really climate- and environmentally-friendly and what potentials it has in terms of sustainability. The demand for biomass in its many manifestations is large and growing. However, this increasing demand is hampered by a finite factor – global land for its cultivation is limited.

In this field of tension between high demand, limited land for cultivation, food security, the protection of land use rights, climate protection, preservation of biodiversity and the conservation of soil and water, it is necessary to develop sustainable solutions for the efficient and climate-friendly production and use of biomass. Oeko-Institut is working on this task in cooperation with and on behalf of a number of partners.

Impact of bioenergy production on resource efficiency in the EU

In its current project ReceBio (Study on Impacts on Resource Efficiency of Future EU Demand for Bioenergy), Oeko-Institut is tackling the question of possible negative effects of biomass production in the EU and how these can be addressed. On behalf of the European Commission, Oeko-Institut is analysing – in cooperation with five partners, including the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) – the impacts of European bioenergy production on resource efficiency.

It became clear in the analysis that the intensification of land use and particularly land use change have negative effects on biodiversity; this is often the case when, for example, forests are cleared to make way for arable or grazing land. Biomass production can also lead to an excessive use of water resources and the pollution of these resources, e.g. due to pesticides. Whether biomass production adds extra carbon to the atmospheric balance sheet and how, strongly depends on the overall carbon footprint of biomass. In order to assess this, it is important to know all the steps in the value chain.

Foregoing bioenergy to assuage world hunger

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), approx. 800 million people around the world do not have enough to eat. In an analysis that is being conducted on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Economy and Energy, Oeko-Institut is currently examining the quantities of biomass that affluent industrialized countries would have to forego in order to balance the amount of biomass needed to ensure sufficient food supplies. The connection is simple: if less agricultural land is used for the cultivation of biomass utilized in bioenergy production, more land is available for food production.

Calculations by researchers at Oeko-Institut show that countries with a high GDP would – simply based on the arithmetic and without taking account of issues such as food access and distribution – have to cut their bioenergy consumption by only seven percent to compensate for the global food shortage.

More efficiency is an important goal

A significant increase in efficiency is another important step towards sustainable biomass use. Production offers a number of starting points to this end, e.g. by tapping additional crop potentials and increasing the yield by means of, for instance, better crop rotation and improved land management. The avoidance of harvest losses – which mostly arise from poor storage and transport – is also crucial. These losses mean that only approx. 50 percent of the food produced around the world actually reaches the consumer. In addition to integrated policies that simultaneously consider food production and bioenergy production, there also needs to be considerably more approaches which couple different uses of biomass so that by-products can be utilized more effectively. This approach is closely related to the cascade principle in which material use of biomass comes before energy, with the result that timber, for example, is used first for furniture production and last of all for bioenergy production.

In addition to increased efficiency, Oeko-Institut is also calling for a more ethical approach to be taken. The question of how industrialized countries use their agricultural land is, in the final analysis, an ethical one. We have to make sacrifices in tackling problems such as world hunger and accept that in some circumstances we may not be able to achieve all our own goals.