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Enough biomass for a sustainable bioeconomy?


JRC data reveals a growing demand for biomass in the EU, mostly associated with rising use of bioenergy. The main use of biomass in the EU remains animal feed and bedding, reflecting consumption patterns.

However, an increasing trend is particularly evident in the bioenergy sector, where use of biomass grew by 32% from 2010 to 2015. Today, bioenergy is the EU's largest renewable energy source, and it is expected to remain a key component of the energy mix in 2030 and beyond.

The growing demand for biomass brought by the bio-based sectors can potentially challenge the sustainability of biomass supply, negatively impacting biodiversity and ecosystem services. There are trade-offs between the many possible uses of biomass, and we need to better understand how much biomass can be mobilised sustainably within safe ecological boundaries.

The European Bioeconomy Strategy promotes the sustainable use of biological resources through a circular cross-sectoral approach. It also aims to preserve and restore the environment, the ecosystems and the vital services they provide, such as climate regulation.

EU biomass: supply, sources, uses and evolution

JRC estimates show that around 1.2 billion tonnes of biomass were used in the EU in 2015. Biomass comes mainly from primary sources (1 billion tonnes) such as agricultural crops (51.5%) and their collected residues (9.9%), grazed biomass (11.7%), forestry (26.6%) as well as fisheries and aquaculture (0.3%).

The remaining 0.2 billion tonnes are supplied from secondary sources such as recycled paper, by-products from wood processing and recovery of wood and other bio-waste. More and more biomass is being recovered from waste.. Over the period 2010-2015, the amount of biological waste that was not recovered (via recycling or energy recovery) was reduced by as much as 45%. This shows the increasing importance of circular economy approaches.

This biomass is used to cover different needs, ranging from animal feed and bedding (43.3%), plant-based food (9.3%) and seafood (0.3%) to energy (23.3%, including heat, power and biofuels), various material uses (23.8%) such as wood products and furniture, textiles, and different types of innovative bio-based chemicals.

The overall biomass use in the EU has grown by around 8.5% over the period 2010-2015. In absolute terms, most of the increase was due to rising demand for bioenergy (+67 Mt), followed by increased demand for bio-based materials (+15 Mt) and for animal feed and bedding (+10 Mt).

In relative terms, the use of biomass for bioenergy has also shown remarkable growth, increasing by about 32% during this period. The use of biomass for producing materials has increased by 5.6% from 2010 to 2015. Within this category, the bio-based chemical sectors exhibited the highest relative increase (+48.4%), but in absolute terms this remains a very small fraction of the total domestic consumption of biomass (0.1%).

Role of research and innovation

The bioeconomy can contribute to a sustainable future: it can help ensure sufficient supply of nutritious food for all and sustainable management of natural resources, and reduce dependence on non-renewable resources. It can also help us mitigate and adapt to climate change, strengthen competitiveness and create new jobs.

However, for the bioeconomy to deliver on sustainability we need to ensure that we fully understand and measure its effects and impacts on our planet taking into account the fact that land-based biomass fulfils crucial roles for the environment. For example, the growing demand for biomass brought by the bioeconomy can potentially challenge the sustainability of biomass supply; there are trade-offs regarding the many possible uses that can be made of biomass within safe ecological boundaries.

Research and innovation can play a crucial role in providing a better understanding of biomass supply and demand as well as the competition, the synergies and the trade-offs between the various biomass uses. It can improve, for example, the efficiency of biomass processing, including the transformation of waste and side streams into higher added value products and eventually bioenergy/biofuels.

The European Commission's Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy, which is managed by the JRC, gathers all the knowledge and expertise needed and strives to build a robust knowledge base that informs evidence-based policy decisions. The JRC presented its latest data on biomass supply and demand in Europe at a high-level debate organised as part of the European Research and Innovation Days in Brussels.

Led by the speakers Janez Potocnik (UNEP), Joachim Von Braun (Bonn University) and Joachim Kreysa (JRC), the debate addressed the challenges, opportunities and needs for delivering a sustainable bioeconomy in Europe. The speakers focused on the tensions between increasing biomass demand and economic, social and environmental issues linked to it, and the role of research and innovation in addressing these, to ensure that the bioeconomy operates within safe ecological boundaries.

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Source: European Commission, Joint Research Centre