The 24th European Biomass Conference and Exhibition in Amsterdam has provided a unique overview of the state of play of the biomass sector and of its fundamental role in achieving the transition to a low carbon economy. After the historical Climate agreement at COP21, international institutions and scientific organizations agree that biomass and the bio-based economy are crucial to meet the 2 °C target of climate change.
Scientific evidence indicates that 730 Gt (billion tonnes) out of the 1,000 Gt of carbon budget available to keep global temperatures below this threshold were already consumed, therefore the time we have to put in place effective measures is limited. We need low carbon solutions that need to be delivered now and the sustainable use of biomass is undoubtedly included. Bioenergy itself can provide 10%-30% of all total CO2 emission reductions needed and this should be achieved by putting bioenergy in the integrated context of the bio-based economy, in order to maximize the efficiency of how we use this resource, to produce renewable energy, food and materials.
The bio-based economy is an economy in which fossil-based raw materials are replaced by renewable raw materials to produce energy, fuels, chemicals, plastics and all kinds of everyday products. The Netherlands – this year the hosting country of EUBCE – represents a good example of how this sector can already contribute to generating growth and development. This sector is already worth 2.6 to €3.0 billion of added value (as of 2011) in the country, including materials, chemicals and energy sectors. The processing of crops and upgrading of residues within the agricultural sector is increasingly improving. Industrial consortia are developing ways to extract protein-rich residues from plant feedstock to be used as food. Other industrial research initiatives are finding ways to extract enzymes from plants for use the chemical industry. The Dutch chemical industry has set a target of replacing 15% of fossil resources in chemicals by 2030 and initiatives are already advanced, for the production of bio-based building blocks (i.e. succinic acid), bio-based polymers and resins, bio-plastics and composites.
Mobilizing Sustainable Biomass
One of the main challenges to attract investments in the European bio-based economy is mobilising biomass feedstocks in a sustainable and resource efficient way. This also implies using lignocellulosic feedstocks, that do not compete with food crops. A careful review of the available scientific literature indicates that mobilizing one billion dry tons of lignocellulosic biomass by 2030 in Europe is possible and this can be done sustainably. This would mean doubling the current use of biomass and would be sufficient to meet the expected demand both for carbon neutral fuels and materials.
This biomass can be derived from four major sources. The first one is represented by agricultural residues such as cereal straw, corn stover etc. that are currently underutilized and which could provide considerable amounts of biomass, even considering strong restrictions on their removal in order to preserve soil fertility. A second source is represented by sustainable forestry, which is already a major provider of lignocellulosic biomass (i.e. for the pulp and paper industry). A third source is represented by lignocellulosic wastes (i.e. paper waste, wood fraction of Municipal Solid Waste, garden waste etc.). Finally, additional biomass could derive from dedicated industrial crops (i.e. perennial grasses, reeds et.c) grown on unused and marginal agricultural lands, which are also largely available in Europe.
Unsustainable displacement of food and loss of forest cover can be avoided by means of higher resource efficiency in agriculture, livestock management and by restoration of degraded lands. This can also provide major synergies between sustainable bio-based economy and sustainable, resource efficient food production.
Advanced Technologies are Available but a Stable Regulatory Framework is Needed
After decades of continuous research and technological development, a number of industrial scale demonstration plants is proving that biomass can be effectively converted into energy, advanced biofuels and bio-based products. Some examples:
- in Germany, Verbio’s innovative anaerobic digestion plant produces biomethane for transports from 100% straw, therefore using only agricultural residues, without any use of maize silage or other dedicated crops;
- in Finland, UPM’s Lappeenranta biorefinery converts residues from the pulp industry into renewable diesel;
- in Sweden, Stora Enso’s biorefinery utilizes lignin and hemicellulose to create a range of products for industries such as food packaging, construction, automotive and personal care;
- in Italy, Novamont is implementing a concept of locally integrated bio-refineries for the production of bioplastics and bioproducts from renewable sources, through the reconversion of decommissioned industrial areas.
Recognizing the value of those good examples is fundamental to build the consensus needed for finally setting a clear, stable European policy framework, which is still lacking, but is essential to enable the widespread development of the bio-based economy. The attention of policy makers and media has been focussed too much on possible negative effects of bioenergy. Attention needs to shift to the positive results that bioenergy and the bio-based economy can deliver in achieving the low carbon economy.
Combining a world-class international scientific conference and a constantly growing industrial exhibition. This is EUBCE’s key to success. A winning combination making this event one of the leading platforms of biomasses in the world.
The 24th EUBCE’s edition key objective, held between 6th to 9th June 2016 in Amsterdam, was to promote interaction between research, the industry and politics. During the conference themes such as biofuel conversion, bioenergies, biorefineries, industrial applications of the results obtained through research were tackled, including policies and impacts on the environment. Last but not least, an analysis of the role of biomasses in the emerging bioeconomy.
EUBCE is funded by European and international organizations such as the European Commission, UNESCO’s Natural Sciences Sector, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, The Global Bioenergy Partnership, the European Biomass Industry Association and other organizations. The technical programme is coordinated by The EC’s DG Joint Research Centre.