The question of whether biofuels are or are not environmentally advantageous continues to be debated with numerous studies being presented from both sides. Some argue that use of crops for energy threatens food supplies and that in any case net lifecycle energy gains when compared to fossil fuel use in similar applications are minor or even negative. Others argue that getting off fossil fuels requires extensive conversion to biofuels. A new report from the European Environment Agency provides an in-depth and credible analysis of the biofuel question. Though it will not immediately end the debate, it should provide a solid basis for future decision making. As observers without an economic interest to pursue might have already deduced, the EEA report concludes that whether or not biofuels are an environmentally preferred alternative to fossil fuels depends very much on how the energy crops and the biofuels are produced.
The report makes the situation very clear:
It is very important to apply resource efficiency principles to developing EU bioenergy production. This means producing more with less while avoiding environmental impacts. There are numerous types and sources of biomass, conversion technologies and potential end uses. Some of these are a good fit with resource efficiency principles, others are not. Biomass from waste and residues from agriculture and forestry offer high resource efficiency whereas the environmental benefits from cultivating crops for bioenergy (‘energy cropping’) are often limited. Finding resource‑efficient combinations of biomass sources, conversion technologies and energy end uses is the main challenge for the further development of EU bioenergy production in an environmental perspective.
Among the long list of aspects to be considered are:
- the choice of biomass feedstock, conversion technology and end use has a huge influence on the efficiency of bioenergy production.
- using organic waste and agricultural residues as feedstock is highly advantageous as it does not augment pressure on land and water resources and offers very high GHG mitigation gains.
- the productivity of different energy cropping systems, expressed in terms of harvestable biomass volume per hectare of cultivated area per year, can vary hugely.
- biomass is a bulk good, making transport logistics a key issue for improving overall efficiency.
- the GHG balance, soil, water and biodiversity impacts of energy cropping systems depend strongly on the land-use change associated with their cultivation, meaning that the location and type of energy crops matter strongly.
- today’s energy cropping patterns are not ‘environmentally compatible’
- perennial bioenergy crops can provide environmental benefits in intensively exploited agricultural landscapes and help to increase landscape diversity. The creation of perennial biomass plantations requires careful planning with detailed knowledge on the production system and the local environmental situation.
- the question of carbon debt (the GHG emission peak that can arise from the combustion of biomass when the replacement of the biomass through plant growth takes a long time) is crucial in considering the GHG mitigation potential of bioenergy derived from forest biomass.
- indirect land use change (the displacement of agricultural land use to third countries that results when agricultural production capacity in one country is eliminated due to the diversion of original output to other uses, such as diverting wheat or oilseed rape area from food to energy production) not only affects the GHG balance of bioenergy pathways but also has substantial impacts on soil and water resources as well as biodiversity wherever it takes place. Such indirect effects have not yet been sufficiently studied.
- the monitoring of energy cropping trends is currently not sufficient to be able to analyse their environmental impact or the effectiveness of (environmental) policy measures in this regard. This has negative repercussions on our ability to improve policy design and implementation.
The 52 page report EU bioenergy potential from a resource-efficiency perspective, highly recommended reading for anyone in the biofuels business or interested in biofuels and biofuels policy, is available at http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/eu-bioenergy-potential