EU Science Hub

Technology key to ensuring sustainable bioenergy and biofuel production

The JRC’s data shows the greenhouse gas emissions savings of bioenergy and biofuel pathways                                  The JRC’s data shows the greenhouse gas emissions savings of bioenergy and biofuel pathways
©Fotolia, AVTG 2017
Nov 16 2017

Bioenergy is the most common renewable energy source in Europe - and it's expected to continue to make up a significant part of the energy mix in the future.

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

Some bioenergy and biofuel pathways have higher (GHG) savings than others, according to the latest data published by the JRC.

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

The research highlights that advanced technology and innovative practices are key to ensuring that bioenergy and biofuels contribute to the decarbonisation of the EU energy sector.

In compiling the data, the JRC found that a number of technological optimisations are necessary to reach the ambitious GHG savings proposed by the Commission.

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

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

Calculating the greenhouse gas emission performance of bioenergy

For bioenergy and biofuels to be effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they must be produced in a sustainable way. Production involves a chain of activities ranging from growing the raw material to final energy conversion – known as the 'pathway'.

Each 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 requires that biofuels and biomass and biogas for heat and power produce fewer GHG emissions than the fossil fuel alternative, in order to be eligible for public support or to be accounted against the EU 2030 target for renewables.

To meet these requirements economic operators can apply the Directive's methodology in order to declare the GHG emissions specific to their process.

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

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

The JRC data only refer to supply-chain emissions, and also exclude indirect land use change effects.

The data has been made publicly available in separate JRC reports on biofuels pathways and solid and gaseous bioenergy pathways.

For each pathway, the input data used in all processes – from cultivation of feedstock to conversion, transport and distribution of the final product – are shown and described. Economic operators can consult these reports as well as databases containing all the input numbers and sources used for the calculations of default GHG emission values.

Operators have the option to use these default values when declaring their emissions.

Alternatively, they might opt to declare actual emissions for the entire chain, or to use actual emissions for some 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 representative for average supply to the EU market for a pathway, they are not designed to represent an individual or specific process.

However, there are a number of recognised voluntary schemes for calculating the GHG emissions in these individual cases.

For example the BioGrace GHG calculation tool for biofuels and bioliquids provides a harmonised methodology for economic operators to make the necessary calculations.

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

A wider scope

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

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

Other changes include:

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

Background information

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

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

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

Bioenergy and biofuels are instrumental in helping EU countries meet these targets.

The proposal reinforces the existing bioenergy sustainability framework by setting out criteria for all biofuels and bioenergy produced or consumed in the EU to ensure that they are produced in a sustainable manner and lead to significant GHG emission savings.

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

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