EU Biomass Use in a Net-Zero Economy: A course correction for EU biomass

This study looks at the big picture of biomass use across the EU economy and suggests ways to realise the greatest possible value from biomass resources in a transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It quantifies the economics, resource requirements, and CO2 impacts of a wide range of biomass options and their alternatives, across both materials and energy uses. The conclusion is that a major course correction is needed. EU policymakers and business leaders alike need to revisit their plans for future biomass use to ensure they are sustainable and economically viable. 

Biomass is scarce and valuable. It cannot viably be used, at scale, in all the applications now envisioned. Continuing current trends (a 150% increase in bioenergy since 2000) will hit limitations, as current plans use 40–100% more biomass than what is likely to be available. Decision makers thus need to prioritise the uses with the highest economic and societal value. 

In doing so, they need to account for a rapidly evolving technology landscape, where opportunities for electrification, batteries, green hydrogen, and new chemistry rapidly expand the options available. And they need to step away from seeing biomass through a lens of bulk contributions to aggregate energy targets, focussing instead on areas where the unique properties of biomass make the greatest contribution to a net-zero economy. 

This study develops concrete guidance on these topics. It finds that materials uses of biomass – for timber, fibre, and chemicals – which are often overlooked, will increase in value in a transition to net-zero emissions. Bioenergy, meanwhile, will be less a high-volume and drop-in replacement of fossil fuels. Instead, bioenergy will need to gravitate towards specific high-value niches – such as hybrid solutions for high-temperature industrial heat; integrated value propositions in waste and carbon management services; and aviation fuels, until or unless hydrogen and carbon capture costs drop to levels where synthetic fuels become cheaper. Even for these niches, the analysis suggests, there will be stiff competition from alternative solutions in the long term. 

The study then puts these principles to work to craft a high-value scenario for biomass use and compare it with the current vision for the future. It reveals a world of difference: The high-value scenario reduces costs by 36 billion EUR per year. It avoids 144 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. And it makes available 30–40 million hectares of land that would otherwise be needed for bioenergy crops. The high-value scenario thus also contributes to the agenda of restoring the biodiversity of European natural systems.

Taken together, this is a major shift in perspective. Current EU policymaking and many company strategies for bio-mass use are based on expectations that, in many cases, rely on outdated knowledge from 10 to 15 years ago. Technology and markets have moved quickly, as has our view of the future of natural systems. An update therefore is needed.