Today, bioenergy represents almost 60% of the renewable energy consumed in the EU28 and its contribution to the energy mix is pivotal to reach carbon neutrality in 2050. Bioenergy feedstock (biomass) is derived from forestry, agriculture, and renewable waste and available on a renewable basis. This is locally produced, abundant, readily available, and the energy produced from it is carbon-neutral when compared to fossil fuels. Of the renewable energy sources, bioenergy offers a concrete solution to climate change mitigation while potentially ensuring the stabilization of current and future energy needs in Europe.
Biomass derived from agriculture (hereinafter agrobiomass) accounts for only 18% of the overall biomass supply for energy. Among other sources, agrobiomass can be derived from agricultural residues (e.g. prunings, olive stone and exhausted olive pomace) and perennial dedicated energy crops (e.g. Short-Rotation Coppice (SRC) and perennial grasses). Both however suffer from serious mobilization issues, hindering the full sectoral development.
Agricultural residues for example are readily available as a result of agronomic operations, but their handling and disposal is often a burden for farmers and communities. These are usually either left on the ground or burned in open field fires leading to substantial air pollution and fire risk. Advance farming techniques to use these residues in alternative ways exist, but there is a general lack of awareness about the benefits of such alternatives. Using residues for energy production could drastically reduce the heating bill for end-users, but also reduce the costs of operations for the farmers and ensure additional income by diversifying their activities.
Similarly, perennial dedicated energy crops require little maintenance an input, and are ready to use shortly after harvest. In addition, these crops have several environmental benefits - including fostering the formation of the natural eco-systems for wildlife, promoting phytoremediation of contaminated sites not adequate for food production, or even to fight soil erosion or valorization of abandoned/marginal lands. However, relatively high capital costs for the establishment of the plantations and lack of awareness by farmers are again too often obstructing the development of these alternative agricultural activities.
At present, it is estimated that the area dedicated to the production of perennial energy crops is 117.401 ha which corresponds to as little as 0,03% of EU28 total land area – equivalent to 0,07% of agricultural land. According to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, within the period 2015-2030 abandoned land could account for 4.2 million ha (3% of total agricultural land). Under the right conditions, the current land not fit for food-production could be better used of to grow energy crops, with potentially tremendous environmental and socio-economic benefits.
All 2050 European Commission’s scenarios for a European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy foresee an increase in both agricultural residues and fast-growing energy crops. Scientific literature also emphasizes that within optimal conditions, by 2050 agrobiomass could account for a substantial part of the overall biomass supply for energy. These optimistic estimations highlight the potential of these alternative farming activities which should be supported and promoted with coherent measures.
In fact, with the upcoming revision of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), we are entering a key phase for the future of Europe, its farmers and the fight against climate. Maintaining a clear link between EU climate objectives, the role of sustainable energy and the CAP is necessary to support synergies between bioenergy and agriculture. If the reference to sustainable energy and renewable energy production capacity is dismissed or altered, this would drastically slow down green energy investments in the agricultural sector and would close the door to income diversification for farmers.
The valorization of agricultural residues through energy and the cultivation of perennial energy crops promotes socio-economic development at a local scale while concretely lessening the dependence on fossil fuels. New rural value chains contributing to bioeconomy, circular economy, and the production of bioenergy stimulate growth and employment in rural areas because they provide opportunities for farmers to diversify their businesses, hedge risks and provide additional income.
When key decisions for the future of the CAP will be taken in the coming months, effective measures such as the coupled income support should be maintained at least at the current levels. Considering their positive environmental impact, this support should be granted to dedicated energy crops such as SRC and other non-food crops that have the potential to substitute fossil fuels. Similarly, mandatory eco-schemes on the first pillar, and measures of the second pillar, such as agro-environmental and climatic measures, should be reinforced to support less-favored rural areas.
Bioenergy Europe believes that the CAP should encourage the supply of bioenergy from agriculture and forestry. Coupled with the promotion of bioenergy use on farms and in rural areas, the outcome could have great socio-economic, climate and environmental benefits. Redirecting these concrete supportive measures to farmers, must be backed by comprehensive awareness-raising campaigns aimed at rural areas in order to ensure that agrobiomass potential is fully untapped and that more private investments are redirected to these alternative agricultural activities.
This article accompanies Bioenergy Europe’s awareness raising campaign on the untapped potential of biomass derived from agriculture. For more information, facts and figures, you can download the Bioenergy Europe factsheet on Agrobiomass, visit the website and watch our four short videos on: SRC Willow, Miscanthus, Agricultural Residues as well as the latest video sharing key policy messages in view of the revision of the CAP.
 JRC Policy Insights (2018) Agricultural Land Abandonment in the EU within 2015-2030.
 Faaij A (2018) Securing sustainable resource availability of biomass for energy applications in Europe; review of recent literature.
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The AgroBioHeat project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 818369.
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