We are doing science for policy
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
The JRC has recently published a Science-for-Policy report that quantitatively assesses biomass production, supply, uses and flows in the European Union (EU), and outlines a methodological framework to assess the environmental impacts of biomass supply chains.
Biomass is organic material that comes from plants and animals. It is the basis of the bioeconomy, which "comprises those parts of the economy that use renewable biological resources from land and sea – such as crops, forests, fish, animals and micro-organisms – to produce food, materials and energy"*.
EU policymakers need to understand biomass supply, demand, costs and their associated impacts in order to be able to make solid and evidence-based policies that will help make Europe a resource-efficient and sustainable economy, as set out in the EU Bioeconomy Strategy (2012) and action plan. This is supported by the Biomass Assessment Study of the JRC (JRC biomass study), which was established in 2015 to provide data, models and analyses on EU and global biomass supply and demand, and its environmental, social and economic sustainability. This report is the first public output of the JRC biomass study.
Main findings of the report
The report addresses biomass produced by the EU agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, and algae sectors based on available data and knowledge, and highlights gaps and underlying uncertainties. It also gives detailed guidance on when and how various Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) modelling approaches should be applied.
Evolution of agricultural biomass production (economic production and residues in Mt dry matter per year) in the EU-28 from 1998 to 2015
Every year, about 800 Mt in dry matter biomass is harvested and used in the EU (578 Mt agriculture, 227 Mt forestry, 1.5 Mt fisheries and aquaculture, 0.03 Mt algae).
The average annual biomass produced in the land-based (agriculture and forestry) sectors of the EU is close to 1 500 Mt in dry matter (about 1 000 Mt agriculture, 500 Mt forestry). However, not all the biomass produced can be harvested - some of it remains in the field to maintain the carbon sink and other ecosystem services.
In terms of dry matter, biomass from marine-based sectors (fisheries and aquaculture, algae) is much lower than that from land-based sectors, supplying slightly less than 2 Mt of dry matter annually.
46% of agricultural production corresponds to residues, about a quarter of which is collected. An average of two thirds of the net annual increase in EU forests is harvested – the remaining third of the wood produced annually remains in the forest, increasing the carbon stock.
Overall, including trade and grazing, the EU uses more than 1 billion tonnes of dry matter of biomass per year. More than 60% is used in the feed and food sector, followed by bioenergy (19.1%) and biomaterials (18.8%).
The EU is an overall net importer of biomass – its exports of animal and processed products as well as solid wood products and paper and paperboard are outweighed by imports of plant-based food, solid biofuels, fish, seafood, and algae.
In terms of both domestic supply and trade, agriculture (65.5%) is the largest biomass supply sector (in dry matter equivalent) in the EU, followed by forestry (34.2%) and the marine-based sectors (0.4%).
Environmental impact of bio-based vs fossil products
Most bio-based commodities release fewer greenhouse gases (GHG) than fossil products throughout their supply chain. However, GHG emissions vary greatly depending on the logistics, type of feedstocks, land and ecosystem management, resource efficiency, and technology used. All uses of biomass and their indirect effects must be considered to measure the climate change mitigation potential of bio-based commodities.
Too often, environmental impact assessments of bio-based systems focus solely on climate change and carbon emissions. However, bio-based systems can lead to trade-offs between climate change mitigation and negative impacts on biodiversity or ecosystem services. More investigation of such trade-off is needed.
As a long-term project, the JRC biomass study will further explore the gaps identified in this report. Future reports will present other important components of the study, such as the modelling framework for developing forward-looking scenarios of biomass supply and demand.