31 January 2019

Biomass certification will make biofuels a viable part of the energy transition

How can the world transition away from a fossil-based economy? Utrecht University Professor Martin Junginger is certain that biofuels must be part of the equation. Not everything can be powered by intermittent green renewables, and the 2050 deadline is just around the corner. Junginger dispels the negative press and explains the importance of biomass certification.

Martin Junginger
Prof Martin Junginger

Martin Junginger is Professor of Biobased Economy at the Energy & Resources section of the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University. He leads a cluster of researchers working on bioenergy and biomaterials, looking at topics such as global and regional biomass potentials, the economic viability of new biofuels for aviation and the environmental impacts of biomaterial and bioenergy production. Together with Prof. Wilfried van Sark, Martin heads the Affordable and clean energy SDG theme within the Copernicus Institute.

Biomass as a fuel source

Biomass is any plant (or animal) matter containing recently sequestered carbon  – and includes feedstocks ranging from wood, perennial grasses, straw, sugar cane, palm oil to manure. Using biomass as an energy source by burning or fermenting it releases CO2 into the atmosphere. However, it is classed as a renewable and low-carbon energy source because carbon is re-sequestered when, for example, trees are replanted. In the case of agricultural and forestry residues, this carbon would also have been released through natural decay. “We still have quite a lot of biomass residues that could be utilized sustainably it if we look around the globe” explains Junginger, “and it can be a very valuable resource to replace fossil carbon.” This position, however, has attracted controversy.

80-85% of agricultural land used for biofuels is located in Brazil, the United States and the EU. These are regions with a food surplus. Producing yet more food in these regions would not solve a food crisis halfway across the world.
Martin Junginger

Dealing with opposition

Many take a harsh stance against the production of biofuels for transport and electricity. They find the associated release of carbon problematic, as well as the in some cases the large amount of time needed for replanted crops and trees to grow to maturity.

Food vs. fuel debate

“The use of agricultural land for biofuel production sparks some pretty intuitive counter-arguments,” says Junginger. For example, it is sometimes argued that world hunger could be largely eradicated if land currently used to produce biofuels from food crops would be used for food production. “While this may be technically true, 80-85% of agricultural land used for these biofuels is located in Brazil, the United States and the EU. These are regions with a food surplus. Producing yet more food in these regions would not solve a food crisis halfway across the world. Potential environmental and social issues always depend on local context.”

Luchtfoto van amazonebossen
Large trees are not burned for energy in commercial forestry because a log is four to ten times more valuable to a sawmill than to a bioenergy plant.

The carbon debt debate

Although a renewable energy source, burning biofuel does release carbon into the atmosphere. To be sustainable and carbon neutral, any biomass that is removed should also be replaced. But doesn’t a tree take many years to mature? Junginger sees where the resistance comes from: “From a climate perspective, burning a 100 year old forest solely harvested for bioenergy makes no sense, and there is plenty of evidence to support this”.

Many people, including this recent article in The Guardian, connect the production of bioenergy from biomass with burning entire mature trees, and mark it as a contributing factor to deforestation. “But this is a commonplace misunderstanding,” he adds. Large trees are not burned for energy in commercial forestry because a log is four to ten times more valuable to a sawmill than to a bioenergy plant. Instead, trees that are already harvested for material purposes (like furniture or construction materials) also contain bark, branches, tops and crooked parts that cannot be sawn into straight timber.

These feedstocks constitute by far the largest share of woody biomass burned for bioenergy in the EU. And if these feedstocks are not used for bioenergy, their carbon is also be released back into the atmosphere fairly quickly. There is more controversy around the use of small trees (e.g. thinnings), but Utrecht University research shows that also these feedstocks can make good sense to use for bioenergy. Last but not least, a requirement for use as renewable energy in the Netherlands that the forest biomass is from sustainably managed forests, and thus regrown after harvest. Under these conditions, Junginger believes that bioenergy is certainly not a driver for deforestation.     

Palm Oil Plant
Palm oil plantation

Sustainability criteria and certification as key to sustainable biomass production

Palm oil is imported to the EU from Indonesia to produce, among other things, shampoo, biodiesel and ice cream. A world of certification schemes exist to ensure that palm oil (and all other biomass) used to produce biofuels is sustainable. These schemes have a long list of requirements, including greenhouse gas emission reductions and ensuring no rainforest deforestation. Biodiesel available in the EU, for example, cannot come from oil palm plantations deforested after 2008.

However, when produced for food or other products, palm oil production, which is notorious for its negative social and environmental impacts, has no such obligatory sustainably schemes. In this case sustainability certification is only a voluntary commitment. In other words, ice cream and shampoo found in the EU contain palm oil that has no legal requirement to be sustainable.

“Using palm oil as a fuel is probably not a good idea as long as its demand for food and material purposes is increasing as well. As long as there are different sustainability certification metrics for different biomass end uses, production will be diverted to sectors with less stringent requirements and unsustainable production allowed to flourish. Internationally enforced biomass sustainability criteria for food, feed, materials, energy and associated land-use are clearly key when it comes to preventing negative impacts such as deforestation, independent of the final end-use of the biomass.”

If the EU dared to lead the way and declare biomass for all end uses be produced sustainably, a much larger part of the global market would be sustainable.
Martin Junginger

Outlook for the future

With their eyes set on maximising production and profits, such mandatory criteria will likely see huge resistance from multinationals and exporting countries. Sustainable raw materials are more expensive and the potential for growth is limited. Junginger does see a way forward: “The EU has more clout than you’d imagine. If it dared to lead the way and declare biomass for all end uses be produced sustainably, a much larger part of the global market would be sustainable. The rest of the world may then be more likely to follow”.

In 2017, the European Parliament voted with an overwhelming majority to ban the import of non-sustainably produced palm oil to the EU. This means that not only the palm oil that ends up in biodiesel, but also in shampoo and ice cream could soon be subject to the sustainability requirements. “This is a strong sign that the EU is willing to go in the right direction. If palm oil succeeds, the seeds are sown for a larger movement for more stringent requirements for all kinds of biomass, independent of the end use”.

More about Junginger

Martin Junginger has a background in chemistry and environmental science, and joined the Energy & Resources staff in 2001 as PhD student, doing extensive research on the technological development and associated cost reductions of several renewable energy technologies, including onshore and offshore wind farms, biomass CHP plants in Sweden and biogas plants in Denmark. Since his PhD, he has mainly been working on developing a sustainable bio-based economy.