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Research on Guaranteeing Sustainable Bioenergy and Biofuel Production

Bioenergy is considered to be the most common renewable energy source in Europe, and it is expected to continue to make up a major part of the energy mix in the future.

The JRC’s data shows the greenhouse gas emissions savings of bioenergy and biofuel pathways. ©Fotolia, AVTG 2017

However, its climate performance can differ significantly based on the production and processing of agriculture or forest biomass and the final use for biofuel production or power generation and heat.

Some bioenergy and biofuel pathways have greater (GHG) savings than others, based on the latest data published by the JRC.

For instance, electricity generated from maize in biogas plants can result in 80% GHG savings when compared to fossil fuel alternatives, provided that gas-tight tanks are in the correct place and agricultural manure is used along with the maize.

The research highlights that improved technology and innovative practices are key to guaranteeing that biofuels and bioenergy contribute to the decarbonization of the EU energy sector.

While compiling the data, the JRC discovered that a number of technological optimizations are essential for reaching the ambitious GHG savings projected by the Commission.

This includes the use of gas-tight tanks, the demand for higher conversion efficiency and higher shares of manure for biogas production.

This month's UN climate change conference (COP23) in Bonn studies progress towards the globally-agreed GHG emission reduction goals. The EU's policies and actions contribute to attaining these goals by increasing the share of renewable energy in the EU energy mix.

Calculating the greenhouse gas emission performance of bioenergy

For biofuels and bioenergy to be effective at decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, they must be generated in a sustainable way. Production deals with a chain of activities ranging from growing the raw material to final energy conversion – called the 'pathway'.

Every single step on the pathway contributes to the total GHG emissions from the supply chain.

The European Commission's proposal for a revised Renewable Energy Directive needs that biofuels and biogas and biomass for heat and power produce fewer GHG emissions than the fossil fuel alternative, in order to be accounted against the EU 2030 target for renewables or to be eligible for public support.

Economic operators can meet these demands by applying the Directive's methodology in order to declare the GHG emissions particular to their process.

This is where the JRC's research proves particularly useful: it provides the raw data used for calculating default GHG savings of biofuels and bioenergy pathways reported in the Directive, that economic operators can use to demonstrate their compliance with legislative requirements.

The work represents the culmination of years of careful literature review and data analysis. In compiling all the input data, the JRC had a number of exchanges with research institutions, industry representatives and economic operators.

The JRC data only deals with supply-chain emissions, and also eliminates indirect land use change effects.

The data is now publicly available in separate JRC reports on biofuels pathways and solid and gaseous bioenergy pathways.

For every single pathway, the input data employed in all processes – from cultivation of feedstock to conversion, transport and distribution of the final product – are presented and described. Economic operators can access these reports and also databases containing all the input numbers and sources employed for the calculations of default GHG emission values.

When declaring their emissions, operators have the option to use these default values.

On the other hand, they may also opt to declare actual emissions for the entire chain, or to use actual emissions for a few steps of the production pathway and use the 'disaggregated' default emissions - also listed in the Directive's annexes - for the other steps.

While the default values are considered to be representative for average supply to the EU market for a pathway, they have not been designed to represent a specific or individual process.

However, there are several recognized voluntary schemes for calculating the GHG emissions in these separate cases.

For instance, the BioGrace GHG calculation tool for bioliquids and biofuels provides a harmonized methodology for economic operators to make the essential calculations.

The present version of the tool is completely in line with the existing JRC data used in the Renewable Energy Directive.

A wider scope

The JRC's data presently extends to GHG values for solid biomass and biogas for power and heat, which had not been included in the GHG savings presented in the current Renewable Energy Directive.

For bioliquids and biofuels, all pathways have been updated, integrating data and suggestions from an extensive range of stakeholders over a number of years.

Other changes include:

  • A new methodology for calculating nitrous oxide emissions from farming using the JRC's Global N2O calculator
  • Reduced emissions for fertilizer manufacturing, to account for progress brought about in the industry
  • The inclusion of emissions data for lime and acidification

Background information

EU countries have decided on a new 2030 framework for energy and climate, including EU-wide targets and policy objectives for 2020 and 2030.

These targets aim at assisting the EU to meet its long-term 2050 GHG reductions target and achieve a more competitive, secure and sustainable energy system.

Among the set of legislative documents produced to attain these targets, in 2016, a proposal was presented by the European Commission for a recast of the Renewable Energy Directive.

Biofuels and bioenergy are instrumental in helping EU countries meet these targets.

The proposal emphasizes the present bioenergy sustainability framework by setting out criteria for all bioenergy and biofuels consumed or produced in the EU to guarantee that they are produced in a sustainable manner and lead to noteworthy GHG emission savings.

The JRC is responsible for defining input values to be employed for the calculation of default GHG emissions for bioliquids, biofuels, solid and gaseous biomass pathways in the Directive.

Data are derived from databases and reports of emission inventories produced by global organizations including the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the European Environment Agency, peer-reviewed journal publications and original data provided by industrial associations and stakeholders.

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