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One Day at the World’s Leading Biomass Technology Conference, EUBCE 2018

Brazil, Denmark, European Union (EU), Farming/Growing, Feedstocks, Field/Orchard/Plantation Crops/Residues, Forestry/Wood, Infrastructure, Opinions, Original Writing, Opinions Advanced Biofuels USA, Policy, R & D Focus, Resources, Sustainability, Tools/Decision-Making
July 17, 2018

by Steve Bi* (Advanced Biofuels USA)  Renaissance-era facades capped with green copper patina and orange clay shingles harmonize seamlessly with imaginative, hallmark-of-Scandinavia, hyper-modern structures in downtown Copenhagen.

Setting of the EUBCE 2018 Copenhagen

The city provided the perfect backdrop for this year’s European Biomass Conference & Exhibition (EUBCE 2018), where European and international companies and organizations promoted cutting edge technology and policy research to complement and supplant centuries-old practices in the agricultural sector.

Held from May 14-17, the EUBCE is coordinated by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and claims to be the leading platform for the collection, exchange and dissemination of scientific and industrial know-how in the field of biomass. Boasting further support from the likes of UNESCO and the World Council for Renewable Energy (WCRE) among others, the EUBCE truly represents one of the world’s most important annual events for the bioenergy community.

The main auditorium was dedicated to bioenergy sustainability questions on day two

The main event of day two ushered all conference attendees into a packed auditorium for a plenary session on climate and sustainability. A minor but sudden medical emergency (all better now) may have kept me in bed on the conference’s opening day, but I wasn’t going to miss this session. This is what I came for.

To no one’s surprise and to my delight, these two hours were dominated by seven letters: LCA and ILUC. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is the widely accepted (though far from perfected) gold standard for quantifying the environmental impacts of producing just about anything, but it has been inextricably linked to bioenergy in recent years.

Jacopo Giuntoli of the EU JRC and the ICCT

On the other hand, indirect land use change (ILUC) is a concept that originated from bioenergy research, describing situations where food crops used for fuel production would be replaced by building farms on natural land elsewhere (rainforest in a worst case scenario). In theory, ILUC also results from all other economic activity that occupies arable land, from real estate to oil extraction (and pipelines and spills), but this logic has yet to enter policy debate.

 

Assessing Life Cycle Assessment

First on the stage was Jacopo Giuntoli of the JRC and the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), presenting his work on assessing LCA as a bioenergy policy support tool, with a focus on forest-based biomass.

His stated motivation for this project was that LCA studies on biofuels have increased exponentially in the past decade, and the adoption of this academic research tool by engineers and companies happened most quickly in the bioenergy industry.

Peter Birch Sorensen of the Danish Council on Climate Change.

But in all this haste, has the research been developed and deployed in the best way?

Giuntoli’s research team believes in the utility of LCA for informing evidence-based policy making, but they identified a number of criticisms which must first be addressed in current bioenergy LCA methodology and application.

On the research front, traditional LCA studies which purport to be “cradle-to-grave” have excluded biogenic carbon flows, the CO2 uptake by crops or trees from the atmosphere and the subsequent storage in itself and the soil and the eventual release by burning or rotting.

This point was reinforced by Peter Birch Sorensen from the Danish Council on Climate Change. Increased use of forest resources can permanently increase atmospheric CO2 levels, he warned, especially if we are using whole trees. “It is not enough to require replanting,” he warned, since this can only rectify the biogenic carbon balance in the distant future and time is of the essence.

The use of forestry residues also has a net negative effect on the climate, Sorensen asserted, but minimally so compared to logging. Olivier Dubois of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) added further insight on this topic, equivocating that residue-based bioenergy is beneficial for the reduced land use requirement, but additional fertilizer would be necessary to replace this natural forest feed.

Olivier Dubois of the FAO

Giuntoli’s proposal to clarify the true climate impact of a bioenergy source is to always interpret the results with respect to a defined reference point – i.e. the pre-existing or most likely alternative use for the biomass or the land. This would provide a clearer picture of the additional environmental impact (positive or negative) caused by using that particular source of bioenergy.

For example, if the primary competition is with oil and gas extraction, biofuels would represent the more sustainable option. However, lumber production may be favorable to bioenergy harvesting, since the biogenic carbon could then be stored long-term in a building.

The ILUC Dilemma

LCA research has furthermore overlooked the impact of market-mediated effects, or in more familiar parlance, ILUC. Giuntoli is firmly in the camp that these indirect emissions must be accounted through modeling, if even with significant uncertainty, because it is “better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”

Inge Stupak of the University of Copenhagen

However, this has been a major point of contention within the bioenergy community, and it was on full display during the plenary session. On the other side of the aisle was Inge Stupak of the University of Copenhagen, who maintains that ILUC should be quantified in local, specific contexts rather than through modeling.

When modeling is applied to ILUC, Stupak mentioned that it must be transparent rather than ‘black box,’ referring to studies such as the European Commission’s use of the GLOBIOM model, which kept many of its assumptions and input parameters out of public view.

Dubois elaborated a similarly diplomatic viewpoint on ILUC quantification. He is a major proponent for gathering empirical evidence on actual indirect effects where they are occurring, a learning experience which can help to both predict future ILUC patterns and to generate a set of best practices for mitigating ILUC impacts.

However, Dubois maintains that he’s not out to villainize modeling. He is only compelled to be so vocal about these alternative tools because policy-makers have become so dependent on modeling for all facets of climate legislation that they might as well be wearing horse blinders.

The message is that we must continue to think outside the box, but at the end of the day there’s nothing wrong with acting inside the box if it’s shown to be the best option.

Lorenzo di Lucia of the Imperial College of London

A Happy Medium?

Lorenzo di Lucia of the Imperial College of London arrived at the same conclusions during his research on the ILUC of second generation (2g) biofuels – that modelling efforts have lacked transparency, consistency, and local-level considerations.

He then went on to present his team’s novel approach which may just address each one of these shortcomings: project-level ILUC modeling. The technique is called ILUC_PAST (ILUC Project Assessment Tool), and it is still in the preliminary stages of development.

The first step is to determine what specific activities of the project would require land-use change, bearing in mind the specific conditions of the project (for example, one of their guinea pig projects refused to use any cropland). If some of this land was in use for another economic activity, then the researchers must theoretically map out the five (or more) most likely supply chains which could replace that lost production.

Finally, LCA impact analyses of the increased land use in those five locations would then represent the range of ILUC emissions that would likely result from the project at hand.

The idea is for all agricultural projects (or perhaps any land-intensive activities) in the future will have to submit an ILUC analysis for approval with the grant proposal. This would likely be the best solution for reducing uncertainties in biofuels’ climate impacts, but it would come at the cost of greater labor intensiveness than other alternatives.

At any rate, almost any ILUC mitigation policy would be favorable to the Commission’s desire to categorically phase out “food-based biofuels” due to their “high risk” of ILUC emissions. 

Positive Synergies

Christian Ege of the Danish Ecological Council expressed the environmentalist’s perspective that it’s best to avoid using farmable land solely for energy purposes. In fact, a single crop can produce up to three outputs simultaneously: food, energy and soil carbon sequestration. This synergy should be encouraged by policy, not victimized.

At a session titled “Economic Indicators of the EU Bioeconomy,” it was established that despite the youth of the bioeconomy as a concept, it already employs more people (over 17 million) than the average sector in the EU and a turnover of 2 trillion Euros annually.

Barna Kovacs of BioEast pointed out just how young the concept is, as there don’t yet exist any homogenized economic indicators for the bioeconomy, and so for now they must be derived from agriculture and biofuels indicators.

Further complicating things are the many ‘hybrid’ economic sectors which entail a bio-based portion and some non-bio-based activities. But while this might make for difficult accounting, these synergies mean that bioeconomic growth could have an amplified impact on the economy.

So while the Commission is right to harbor concerns over ILUC, it must also consider these positive indirect effects of bioenergy and the potential to quantify and mitigate the negative.

Robert Matthews of Forest Research (foreground

Social Support

Like Robert Matthews of the UK-based Forest Research quipped during his presentation, “A half truth is like a half brick. It has half the weight but it travels twice as far.” These half bricks often contain a grain of truth, but only in specific situations or from a certain perspective.

The EUBCE is such an extraordinary event for stakeholders in the bioenergy industry exactly because one can witness the world’s leading experts debating their differing viewpoints. This helps to put each presentation in context, avoiding the biased takeaways that might result from other more focused, smaller conferences.

However, the unfortunate reality is that we live in a post-truth society, as Geraldine Kutas of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) lamented during her talk on society’s relationship with bioenergy. When both sides constantly employ black and white rhetoric, the truth – resting somewhere in the grayscale – becomes increasingly obscured and socially irrelevant.

Geraldine Kutas of UNICA

For example, Kutas pointed out that survey results can often be contradictory. A recent study found that the majority of society think that bioenergy is both sustainable and a major cause of deforestation. She puts the blame on the media more than anything else for propagating these mixed messages.

“It’s hard to sell positive stories to the media,” Kutas lamented, and this is perhaps truer now than ever before. This is particularly unfortunate because people are primarily concerned with the socioeconomic benefits of bioenergy, as Evelyne Thiffault of Universite Laval found in a survey of Quebec citizens, and there is already robust evidence in places such as Brazil, where Kutas pointed out that sugarcane growing regions are significantly wealthier.

To compound the issue, public perception may just be the most important factor for bioenergy policy, according to a stakeholder survey analysis conducted by Thuy Mai-Moulin of the IEA.

This lies at the core of one of the day’s catchphrases, that the governance of bioenergy sustainability is a “wicked problem.”

A Wicked Problem

Like with any other policy discourse, the people want a simple answer – a dogma to believe in and a straightforward path to follow. After all, it’s an innocent enough question. “Is bioenergy sustainable?”

Well, bioenergy is such a diverse and complex field that the responsible, scientific answer is and always will be: “That depends.”

Thuy Mai-Moulin of the IEA responds to a question from the floor

It depends on the type of feedstock. It depends on where that crop was grown. It depends on how efficiently it utilizes water and land, and on what else those resources could have been used. It depends on the end use and what energy source it replaced. It depends on the economic consequences for other agricultural products. It may even depend on the geopolitical fallout associated with a shifting global energy landscape.

Somehow, rather than feed the public’s (and their representatives’) hunger for sensational and counterproductive “food vs. fuel”-type debates, we must help them to refine their palates.

Policy-makers in particular need to stop waiting for a singular “right answer” to the question because it simply doesn’t exist, warned Alessandro Agostini of the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA). What makes this such a wicked problem to him is that we can’t even agree on what exactly the problem is since it is constantly changing over time as more knowledge surfaces.

This echoed Inge Stupak’s claim from earlier in the day that “we will never be able to predict all the consequences of bioenergy.” But that mustn’t stop us from using it and understanding it to the best of our ability, because the same can be said of “any other human activity.”

To help reconcile the desire of some lawmakers to achieve perfection, Stupak would like them to recognize sustainability as an aspirational goal, not an operational goal. Novel research findings very often answer certain questions while simultaneously raising new ones. Policy-makers should use the new knowledge to identify the best available opportunities to move the industry forward rather than balk at the ever-present uncertainties and hold it back. To protect against potential missteps, policies must balance regulation with flexibility, she advised.

No Tame Solution

Of all the renewable energy alternatives in the fight against climate change, bioenergy has been and will continue to be the most prevalent and important around the world. Unfortunately, it is also the most complex, to the point that it almost doesn’t make sense to group all the different technologies together under a single term.

It thus follows that we can’t expect to successfully govern the field with a single, blanket policy. As Alessandro Agostini put it, “There can’t be a tame solution to a wicked problem.”

Integrated assessment modeling has grown to become incredibly sophisticated through the years, and it is our best tool available for assessing possible outcomes in the climate-energy-economy nexus. However, the technology is constantly under development, and it can never purport to be 100% accurate.

Therefore, just as new bioenergy technologies keep garnering policy interest as they come to light, so should novel approaches for studying and governing them. Just as different energy sources are better suited for different locations, certain tools should be applied for global scale estimates, others for regional analyses, and yet others for local-scale data collection.

With this complete arsenal at our disposal, it may turn out that, as Jeff Skeer of IRENA said, “The answer to wickedness is cooperation.”

*Steve Bi is a graduate of the Centre international de formation européenne’s (CIFE) Master in Global Energy Transition and Governance and writes for Advanced Biofuels USA, particularly on policy developments in the EU.

**Photos courtesy of EUBCE

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