EU bioenergy potential from a resource efficiency perspective

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

The bioenergy challenge
The European Union has set itself the ambitious target to increase the share of renewable sources in final energy consumption to 20 % by 2020 (EC, 2009). This is motivated by the widespread recognition that using fossil fuels to generate energy causes significant harm to the environment and human well.being. Renewable energy technologies offer a way to increase resource efficiency significantly . enabling society to meet its energy needs at much lower environmental costs.

In Europe, bioenergy plays a central role in national renewable energy plans (NREAPs), accounting for more than half of projected renewable energy output in 2020. Yet while these targets offer potentially significant environmental benefits, it is clear that the extent of those benefits will vary hugely depending on how bioenergy is developed.

Whereas all renewable energy sources necessitate some use of natural resources, bioenergy differs in the extent and complexity of its impacts. While some bioenergy sources and technologies offer significant advantages over fossil fuel.based systems, others lead to environmental concerns. This is particularly the case where bioenergy involves using agricultural land to cultivate energy crops, since it often results in changes to land use, including expanding or intensifying agriculture at other locations. This can have significant implications for the natural environment, such as biodiversity and the water, nutrient and carbon cycles, affecting ecosystem functioning and resilience in diverse ways.

It is very important, therefore, 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.

Report background and aims
To support decision.making in this complex area, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has produced a series of reports estimating the European Union's bioenergy potential in an environmental perspective and analysing its most efficient use to support greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation (EEA, 2006, 2007, 2008). Understanding of key issues has since advanced, particularly regarding the crucial role of indirect land use change (ILUC) in determining environmental impacts of bioenergy. The EEA European Topic Centre on Spatial Integration and Analysis (ETC/SIA) produced a report in 2013 re.evaluating Europe's bioenergy potential and providing further insights into:

  • the potential GHG savings from different technological options to convert biomass to energy ('bioenergy pathways');
  • how to bring a resource efficiency perspective into the design of bioenergy development;
  • concerns about the GHG benefits of using forest biomass to produce energy ('carbon debt');
  • the desirability of current bioenergy cropping trends from an environmental perspective.

This EEA report provides an analytical summary of the results of this ETC/SIA report, and includes additional qualitative analysis of the 'carbon debt' issue. It primarily addresses the agricultural sector as it is clearly the biomass source with greatest potential for growth and for adverse environmental impacts . often as a result of ILUC. However, the study also includes the estimated bioenergy potentials for the EU forest and waste sectors from earlier EEA reports in order to provide a complete analysis of the most resource-efficient approach for reaching the EU 2020 bioenergy ambitions.

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