Biomass Is the Wealth of EU Nations

02.03.21 | Blog | By:

“Europe is a club of nations that have definitely renounced the empire”: this mighty sentence from one of our greatest philosophers, Peter Sloterdijk, offers hope that the EU, in contrast with the U.S., China, Russia or the UK, may well be in the best frame of mind to rediscover the virtues of “de-globalization”, development based on local wealth, after five centuries of driving globalization.

In the EU:

  • 450 million inhabitants support a strong demand, for products and energy, and say they want more of the bio version,
  • Are in dire need of qualified jobs, in the primary sector, production and processing, that has slowly declined in the last decades,
  • And also crave for energy supply security, as we have witnessed in 2020 with the pandemic.

And while our climates and territories do not offer the vast expanses of the Great Plains of the United States or Brazil, well suited for industrial agriculture and forestry, the variety of crops and forests in nations across the EU offers the opportunity of diversification in the production and transformation to bio-products, biofuels and bio-materials. A long history and a significant size does matter here:

  • EU is the first agricultural powerhouse in the world. Out of 174 million hectares, 40% covers the EU. France, Italy, Germany and Spain generate more than 50% of the revenues from agriculture in the EU and a very ambitious Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been in place since 1962, a massive help to the growth of this sector which was devastated after WWII.
  • Forests cover 178 million hectares, also 40 % of EU surface, and have been steadily growing since the 1950s. Sweden, Finland, Spain and France account for nearly 50 % of EU forestry.

And many EU countries, in Western, Central, Eastern and Northern Europe, have demonstrated agricultural and forestry products, co-products, wastes and residues can be grown and used towards bio-products, mainly biofuels so far in volume, without external negative consequences, such as deforestation or food price increases; on top of that, bringing qualified local jobs and energy security.

So, why do most EU strategies and visions towards zero-net carbon ignore or shun biomass as one of the readily available solutions to help mitigate the effects of global warming, especially in transport, where biofuels have been present for quite some time, since 1970 in Brazil, the 1990s in the EU?  Why do we see so many studies posted to convince everyone that electro-mobility has powerful capabilities to reduce GHG emissions?

There is little doubt that electro-mobility has many merits, especially in urban areas, and not only to reduce GHG emissions. Electricity generation from wind and solar, plentiful in the EU, does not hopefully suffer from the risk of resource depletion. Still, there is consensus that it will take some time for this mode of transport to become dominant. EV competitiveness has to improve, recharging infrastructure has to be deployed to the level enjoyed today by liquid fuels distribution, electricity generation has to become more renewable in many nations of the EU. So, let us be realistic.

More than 10, likely 20, years will be necessary to convince the European owners of more than 200 million cars to replace their internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) by an affordable EV, without the fear to get stranded in the middle of nowhere by an empty battery or to face more than half an hour of recharging time in a service-station (when five minutes today generate impatience in frenzied motorists!). And let us not forget that manufacturing is a global activity, where low cost is the name of the game. The new e-models, from BMW and DS for instance, are all imported from China. There is no doubt that, right now, electro-mobility is not showing many local jobs for European citizens.

If this decade is indeed critical for the mitigation of the dramatic effects of global warming, having now accepted we will have to bear with the negative consequences of climate change for decades before hoping for some respite, we cannot just sit on our hands and watch transport GHG emissions carry-on with their unrelenting growth. Liquid biofuels are indeed yesterday’s news, they are not the hottest of the new silver bullets for a greener transport, like electricity, hydrogen or the autonomous vehicle, but, thanks to tenacious R&D, are still progressing in terms of environmental performance.

As an example, even traditional sugar fermentation, which has, for countless ages, generated biogenic CO2, could become CO2 emission-negative if sugar is co-fermented with (green) hydrogen to produce ethanol and water. CO2 sequestration over and above the 72% CO2 emission reduction today for ethanol produced in the EU, according to ePURE. This would seriously improve the resilience of petrol-fueled ICEVs, when going beyond 10% of ethanol in petrol (E10) is not that difficult from a technological point of view, and it would certainly be much cheaper than what is envisaged for electro- or hydrogen-based mobility.

Biofuels produced in the EU can safely demonstrate, today, solid performances in GHG emission reduction, based on regulated, scientific, peer-reviewed, lifecycle analysis across the whole supply chain, from cradle to grave. So, accepting that EU Directives, strategies, visions wisely target far away horizons like 2050 and favor electricity and hydrogen for long-term mobility, let us make a plea towards the EU nations to keep on making biofuels and emerging bio-materials, a significant and growing part of the short to middle term national solutions in transport, based on local biomass resources and innovative, job-creating, transformation processes.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP) and recently retired from TOTAL where he served as Senior Biofuels Expert.

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