“An enormous amount of nonsense” has been told about bio-energy, says André Faaij, scientific director of Energy Academy Europe and professor Energy Systems Analysis at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. According to Faaij, it is high time for the real – scientifically validated – story. “The bio-based economy is indispensable for our climate policy and can mean huge progress for agriculture and nature in developing countries”. Interview with an energy and environmental expert who is indignant about the European debate on bio-energy.
Bio-energy has acquired a bad reputation in many European countries in recent years, as André Faaij knows all too well. “There is this idea that as a result of the production of palm oil and wood pellets forests are being cut down, food prices are going up and people are starving to death. That’s a totally one-sided picture. It is deadly for the development of a sector that is crucial for the economy and the climate.”
Faaij is one of the top experts in the bio-based economy in Europe. The concept “bio-based economy” refers to the broad aim to make a transition from an economy based on fossil fuels to one in which biomass is one of the key raw materials.
“Cutting trees for power plants? That is much too expensive. That is not the way it works”
This transition is not really happening at the moment, at least not in Europe. Investment and research are held back because policymakers doubt the necessity and value of biomass, says Faaij. “Within the European Commission the directorates of Environment and Energy are totally at odds with each other over this. Some people don’t even want to talk about bio-energy anymore. About such a crucial topic! That’s really terrible. It’s a disaster.”
Faaij is indignant about what he regards as misleading reports on bio-energy in the media and by some environmental groups. Take the forests in the southeast of the U.S., which deliver a lot of the biomass used in the Netherlands and other European countries. “Documentaries have been made about this, suggesting that natural forests are cut down to supply wood pellets for our power plants. That is really nonsense, as shown by a lot of recent research. Cutting trees for power plants? That is much too expensive. That is not the way it works.”
According to Faaij, these are production forests and plantations, from which waste products are produced that are then turned into wood pellets. “These forests are managed very cleverly so they can supply more biomass. This does not require any extension of acreage. In fact, the forestry industry in the southeast of the U.S. is confronted with a lack of demand for their products, because of the recession in the paper industry. If they had not had biomass as a new source of demand, the forests would have been cleared to make way for urban development. So the truth is the exact opposite of what is being claimed.”
“You don’t need to use more land to make biomass production possible; on the contrary, you can produce more with the available land”
This does not mean that things can’t go terribly wrong with biomass. This is what happened, for example, with the production of palm oil in Indonesia, for which parts of the tropical rainforest were destroyed. “Indonesia is known for its corruption around land ownership. Tropical rainforest has disappeared there to make way for palm oil. That is an assault on nature. It also leads to a terrible greenhouse balance. It’s not what we want.”
But on degraded soil – and there is a lot of that too in Indonesia – the production of palm oil can be a good option, says Faaij. “Then more carbon is being captured than released. And this offers rural communities a source of income, which keeps them from cutting down forest. So in these circumstances palm oil can be good for the climate and for the rainforest.”
Damaged or destroyed
Production of biomass should never happen at the expense of food production, says Faaij. In fact, “the starting point of sustainable biomass is that it must be accompanied by an increase in the production of agriculture and livestock farming”.
This may seem contradictory, but according to Faaij it is very well possible: “There is a large and growing area of degraded and marginal lands in the world, partly the result of faulty agricultural methods. This is particularly the case in subsistence farming, the most basic form of agriculture. Hundreds of millions of hectares have been damaged or destroyed. With relatively simple improvements, by better use of soils, water and fertilizers, you can increase food production by a factor of 3 to 4. In addition through reforestation and the right use of residues and waste flows, you can diversify the rural economy. So you don’t need to use more land to make biomass production possible; on the contrary, you can produce more with the available land.”
If we move to a bio-based economy trillions of dollars that now go to producers of oil, coal and gas will go to farmers producing biomass
Take Brazil, says Faaij. This country has achieved a much more sustainable and efficient agriculture by growing sugarcane both for the production of sugar and for ethanol. “Because they can switch between sugar and ethanol, depending on market prices, they have created a more stable revenue stream. In this way they have managed to modernize their agricultural sector. At the same time a lot of R&D is taking place and environmental standards have been raised.”
Another example Faaij cites is jatropha in Africa, with has seen good and bad experiences. “Large-scale jatropha projects that were meant purely for export have been failures. These were insane. But projects in places where jatropha is a byproduct, used at a much smaller scale, have been very successful. There jatropha can be used to generate electricity locally, replacing much more polluting diesel oil.”
Faaij points out that if we move to a bio-based economy trillions of dollars that now go to producers of oil, coal and gas will go to farmers producing biomass. “We are talking about a big shift in the global economy, an enormous impulse for the agricultural sector, which can then continue to modernize, become cleaner and more efficient.”
How climate neutral is biomass?
Hoe climate neutral is biomass really? Trees and plants capture CO2 which is released again when they are burned. That results in zero emissions – in theory at least.
But critics have argued that things may look different in practice. First of all, the use of land can change negatively: if forest is cut to grow energy crops, emissions increase. This means that the ILUC factor (“indirect land use change”) is crucial to show whether biomass has been produced sustainably, says Faaij. If biomass production is accompanied by a higher productivity of agriculture and livestock farming, then the ILUC factor is not negative. That is why sustainable biomass and making agriculture sustainable are closely connected.
Another problem occurs if trees in a forest are cut for biomass. It can take dozens of years before they have grown back, in other words, before the emission balance is neutral again. This is too long in view of the urgency of the climate problem. But according to Faaij this is not the way biomass is produced. First of all, the overwhelming majority of biomass for energy is made from waste wood and is therefore a byproduct of commercial forestry, he says. Secondly, “large producers such as Sweden, Finland and Canada show that increased use of biomass for energy can be combined with a growing forest cover and more carbon capture in more productive forests.”
This brings us to Faaij’s second urgent message. Large-scale, sustainable biomass is not only good for farming and nature, it is also indispensable to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming, he says. “All studies – using many different models and scenarios – show a consistent picture, namely that in the second half of the century some 300 Exajoule (EJ) of our energy supply must come from biomass. That is 20 to 30% of the expected future energy consumption. At this moment global energy consumption is around 550 EJ, but this is expected to rise significantly over the coming decades.”
A share of 20-30% is comparable to the role now played by oil, says Faaij. “It’s gigantic. We now produce some 15 EJ of sustainable biomass. That has to be increased by a factor of 20.”
Faaij says it’s an illusion to think that the world can solve the climate problem without the contribution of biomass. “All serious studies show that all options available must be used. If you remove biomass, it is certain we won’t reach the 2 degree target.”
Biomass is particularly important for applications for which there are no good alternatives. “If you want to decarbonize, then biomass is indispensable as feedstock for the chemical industry and by far the best option for heavy road transport, shipping and aviation.”
“The effect of doing nothing on biomass is to continue with oil, gas and coal”
Another crucial application, says Faaij, is bio-energy in combination with carbon capture and storage (CCS), known as BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage). “If we want to limit warming to 2 degrees, it won’t be enough to reduce emissions to zero. We will also need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. That’s called negative emissions. One of the most important options for this is sustainable biomass with CCS.”
Faaij explains that if you burn biomass in a power plant, this will release CO2, just as in a coal or gas fired power plant. Unlike with coal and gas, however, the biomass is regarded as climate neutral because the CO2 has first been fixed by plants and trees and because these are replaced by new plants and trees that capture CO2. But you can go a step further: “If you capture and store the CO2 from a biomass-fired plant, you actually reduce emissions. This can be done at quite reasonable cost.”
According to Faaij, society should stop polarizing and face the facts. “Biomass is necessary and it can be produced and used in a sustainable way. We have to start looking at how we can achieve a sustainable bio-based economy. Not if, but how.”
If we don’t do this, he adds, the energy transition will slip out of our hands. “The effect of doing nothing on biomass is to continue with oil, gas and coal.”
Who is André Faaij?
Prof. dr. André Faaij is Distinguished Professor Energy System Analysis at the University of Groningen specialized in the bio-based economy. He is also Academic Director at the Energy Academy Europe based in Groningen.
Previously, he was a Professor and scientific director of the Copernicus Institute of Utrecht University.
He is or was a member of a variety of expert groups in bio-energy and energy policy, research and strategic planning and works or worked as advisor for governments, the European Commission, the International Energy Agency, UNIDO, UNEP, FAO, the World Economic Forum, and other institutions.