Biomass Hot Issue: Smart Choices in Difficult Times

Jul 2008

**This publication was not produced by IEA Bioenergy. It has been produced by the taskforce Energy Transition, Biobased Raw Materials Platform, Sittard, the Netherlands.**

The use of biobased raw materials for energy and material has been brought into discredit in the past years. The use of bioenergy is repeatedly held responsible for the recent food crisis and for the deforestation of rainforest, and questions are being asked about the advantages to the climate. As a result of this discussion, the joint Platforms in Energy Transition have once again considered their position in respect to biomass. Along with the Biobased Raw Materials Platform, these are the Chain Efficiency Platform, the New Gas Platform, the Sustainable Mobility Platform and the Sustainable Electricity Supply Platform.

The Platforms share the concerns existing in wider circles.
Bioenergy must not be produced at the cost of food provisions.
At the same time the Platforms are of the opinion that biomass is essential for achieving a sustainable energy system. The Platforms will maintain ambitious objectives in this field, on condition that application of biobased raw materials takes place in a sustainable and intelligent fashion, where agriculture can still produce enough to feed the world. The discussion about the sustainability of bio-energy is essential and the Platforms seek a balance in this discussion. It appears from scientific research that agriculture can produce sufficient food and energy and materials. The productivity of agriculture continues to increase, even though the efforts required have not come up to mark in large parts of the world during the last decade. Limits for retaining biodiversity are respected in the intelligent use of biomass: no damage to natural areas for new production. Care is taken of improved performance in crops: less artificial fertilizer, higher yields. Types of agriculture that are beneficial to the environment, labour conditions and local economy are stimulated in the production countries. The efficiency of the entire chain, from plant to food and use of biofuels, is increasing continually which in turn decreases the emission of greenhouse gases. Waste products are used usefully. New crops with high yields are being developed. And new products are being made and new applications are being opened up with the new technologies.

Clever crops and clever technologies form an essential part of the intelligent use of biomass. Plenty of such crops and technologies are being developed. The first step is to make use of the whole crop. Important parts of the harvest, such as straw and foliage, often remain unused. They could be used for energy and materials. Wood-like crops and grasses with a high yield (often higher that that of food crops) can be planted on fallow
land, on marginal and degraded soils and – if the food situation permits – also on arable land.

Innovation in these areas is happening at high speed. Boundaries that appear now can be shifted with sufficient effort far away in ten years time. The efficiency can be increased with clever technologies, not only for the energy and material chains, but also for the food chain.

It goes without saying that world food production, local as well, must not suffer from the production of bio-energy. Clear criteria must be set out to achieve this and there should be some type of
monitoring to check whether it is upheld. The EC has formulated criteria, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom preceded the EC in this. Round Tables of producers and users of food crops such as palm oil, sugar and soy are currently certifying their products. Monitoring the indirect effects, such as the displacement of crops or arable land which indirectly promotes the exploitation of tropical rainforest for example, is more
difficult. But this is also feasible in principle.

The Platforms have arrived at the following conclusions:
– Biomass has the potential to play an important role in sustainable energy provision for society with energy and materials.
– There are no reasons why bio-energy should either be rejected or received with open arms. In view of the risks of the use of biomass, careful and intelligent use is recommended.
– According to the latest insights, sufficient potential can be developed in biobased raw materials (if the productivity increase in agriculture across the world remains at the top of the list) to cover the growing demand for bio-energy and biomaterials without endangering the production of food.
– Use must be made of chains with a good greenhouse gas balance and little environmental impact.
– It is imperative to increase the efficiency in all chains (food, cattle feed, energy) constantly by using the whole crop and by integrating the chains.
– Biobased materials offer new chances for economic activity, in the Netherlands as well as in developing countries, and a new source of income for farmers all over the world.
– Certification of biomass, monitoring the food situation and the macro-effects such as land usage are the key variables
for the successful application of biobased raw materials.

– Speedy development of technologies which enable more efficiency in the chain (particularly biorefining, biocascading and second generation technologies) are necessary to counterbalance the tension between the ambition of the current (European) policy and the (current and future) world agricultural production.

A large potential of biomass can be developed in a responsible fashion with intelligent use and consideration to the conditions in force.