Sustainability of biomass and the trauma of bioenergy enthusiasts

Let's put it as it is, the topic of "sustainability" is already hanging out in the ears of many. It's a bit like “Sustainability - the new black” and many are trying to trim this elegant costume for their own purposes. The bubble-like success of the sustainability ideal and the inflationary use of the term raise concerns that in a few years' time hardly anyone will want to deal with this topic. Like a catchy tune that you sing along enthusiastically the first 10 times, but want to throw the radio out the window the 20th time. For the bioenergy industry, the concept of sustainability has also become a kind of trauma that has transformed once thriving advocates of this renewable form of energy into committed opponents. In this article there are some arguments and figures on the somewhat annoying but still important topic of sustainability and its importance for bioenergy.

Basics of the concept of sustainability

The issue of sustainability is appallingly complex, making it difficult to define it clearly. In this context, I would therefore only like to briefly discuss the origin of the sustainability movement.

The German-language term "sustainability" was already used in 1713 by the German forest scientist Hans Carl von Carlowitz shaped, who used this in connection with the establishment of sustainable forestry. We also know the ideas of sustainable use of nature from the culture of the Indians. At the current heyday of sustainability, the published in 1987 Message contributed to the Brundtland Commission, who formulated a concept for sustainable development. The frequently quoted key message is:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without risking that future generations will not be able to meet their own needs."

Another frequently cited result of the commission was the sustainability triangle, which describes the different dimensions that have to be taken into account for sustainable development.

Sustainability triangle Brundtland Commission The goal of a sustainable way of life is therefore the long-term sustainable fusion of the ecological, social and economic goals of our society. Even if the environmentalists do not like to hear, sustainability is not an argument that is limited to ecological development. Environmental protection is important, but creating jobs or improving world food are no less honorable goals and sometimes in direct conflict with environmental protection.

Further information on the term sustainability can be found in the Lexicon of sustainability.

Environmental protection and climate protection are two persistent companions

This experience has allowed bioenergy to experience firsthand in recent years and I assert that the bioenergy industry has taken the demands of environmental and climate protection representatives to heart and has drawn appropriate lessons from the sometimes very harsh criticism.

The term sustainability concerns and confuses the public debate and in practice the different target corridors for environmental and climate protection are often mutually exclusive. Although the motivations for environmental and climate protection are similar, the representatives of both movements rarely agree on the assessment of social developments. A current example are the conflicting goals that result from the expansion of the network for the further energy transition.

Shocked girl

The cultivation of energy crops and the use of bioenergy sources are viewed critically by both environmentalists and climate protectionists. While some are Deforestation of rainforests and condemning the increasing maize of landscapes (monocultures), the others criticize the non-neutral carbon footprint of biofuels. Especially when it comes to central and industrial bioenergy, both parties hardly say a good word. On the other hand, many economists see the strengths for the further expansion of the industry above all because production costs can be reduced and efficiency can be increased.

For some years now there has been a ban on first generation biofuels and the introduction of a ILUC factor discussed. In my opinion, both measures are very drastic and together with the proposals of the EU's climate policy department Change in biofuel targets put the pistol on the chest of most of today's bioenergy.

If the bioenergy industry succeeds, despite all justified criticism of the critics, to respond to their demands, then the use of bioenergy will play a pioneering role for sustainable development not only from an economic and social perspective, but also from an ecological perspective. That there are already many successes here, more on that in a later section.

Uwe R. Fritsche - one of the sharpest and best bioenergy critics ?!

I have long considered whether to write the following and more personal section on bioenergy sustainability. Ultimately, I chose it because I'm afraid that no one else would care about this so important point for the rest Expansion of bioenergy will write. Ultimately, however, the bioenergy blog was created precisely for this open discussion about bioenergy. Why is?

At the specialist dialogue on sustainability and Co-combustion of biomass I heard a lecture by a bioenergy player that you cannot avoid in the current bioenergy debate because it is so omnipresent. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I am only happy because I perceive him as one of the sharpest and most thorough critics of bioenergy. I do not know whether he would describe himself as a keen critic, but the measures he has taken in dealing with bioenergy threaten above all the very basics of the still young biofuel production in Europe. We are talking about Uwe R. Fritsche, the scientific director of the newly founded International Institute for Sustainability Anlaysis ans Strategy (IINAS).

Personally, I view Mr. Fritsche's statements on bioenergy very ambiguously and see the demands that he made on behalf of many bioenergy critics as unhelpful for a quick contribution to climate protection and a solution to oil. On the one hand, Mr. Fritsche's broad and deep knowledge of bioenergy is impressive. On the other hand, I am always surprised at the apparent ease with which he appeals to the less informed critics scientific arguments supplies and thus contributes to the constant loss of image in the industry. In my experience, his strong support for the ILUC factor for bioenergy sources and the great confidence in very abstract mathematical models for evaluating this renewable form of energy support the at least bioenergy players. However, it must be said that Mr. Fritsche is a physicist and scientist and the economic expansion of bioenergy is not one of his most important goals / tasks. In the last lecture I heard from him, he describes bioenergy as a "bridge technology for a solar age".

I cannot call myself an experienced modeler, but I did my diploma thesis on the development of a mathematical computer model (MATLAB) for the predator-prey relationships of algal biocenoses and at least gained a practical insight into the strengths and weaknesses of mathematical models. I respect Mr. Fritsche's belief in the great potential of mathematical models. In the future, models will certainly make an even greater contribution to enabling us to make more responsible decisions. But many mathematical models, especially for very complex systems, are still far from being used as a comprehensive basis for decision making. I know that the engineers and scientists who develop mathematical and computer-aided models always point out the narrow limits in which their models are effective. Unfortunately, the underlying framework conditions of complex climate models quickly reach their limits when it comes to representing reality in a representative manner. With all the euphoria for the potential of these decision aids, we should not forget that.

As a medium-term upper limit for the application potential of bioenergy, Mr. Fritsche sees a 10 percent mark measured on the final energy consumption (!) In Germany. As a bioenergy enthusiast, this absolute and comparatively low upper limit for what is currently the most important renewable energy source in terms of its share makes me sad. In addition, the question remains whether this brand can be achieved at all in the near future under the proposed and comparatively high requirements for the ecological sustainability of biofuels and the like. The share of bioenergy is currently at Final energy consumption from Germany at 5.7 percent. In any case, an optimistic view of bioenergy looks different. And even a pragmatic “yes” to the energy transition looks different for me than developing increasingly complex and abstract models that endanger any willingness to invest.

So either Mr. Fritsche loves bioenergy so much that he wants to develop it perfectly right from the start, but risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or Mr. Fritsche's passion for mathematical climate models is so great that the bioenergy industry is growing in practice and their significance for Germany's medium-term energy supply means comparatively little. I am not aware of any other agricultural or energy sector that has to defend itself morally and at such great expense. If you look closely, then wind energy and phovoltaics are not “climate neutral” either.

In the following interview from summer 2011, Mr. Fritsche's bioenergy statements are even less drastic than in the last lectures I heard from him.

The great respect for responsibility in dealing with bioenergy

Bioenergy in Germany has been in its darkest phase for about 3 years and existential fears belong above all to the biofuel industry and in some cases to that gaseous bioenergy for daily business.

Becoming aware of a less climate-neutral balance of bioenergy than initially hoped for, fear of uncontrollable deforestation of rainforests or concern with the use of bioenergy to worsen world hunger. These are the main criticisms that plunge you as a bioenergy enthusiast into a deep crisis. Nobody who deals openly with the bioenergy debate can leave these accusations untouched. To a certain extent, I can therefore understand that relying on complex mathematical models is a preferred approach to hedge against all conceivable risks. But it also makes me sad to see how, for fear of any negative impact on the environment or climate, we miss the chance to develop the great potential of bioenergy to solve existing problems. We are already much more hardened (duller?) With fossil fuels.

In my opinion we are paralyzed and many are lacking the willingness to really do something to improve the situation of the coming generations. Unfortunately, we do not get climate protection and the solution to the scarcity of petroleum. At the moment the situation of bioenergy looks like we are playing a very theoretical chess game against it in the scientific ivory tower. The Bioenergy study by the Leopoldina and the ILUC factor are two examples of particularly elegant features. A little more pragmatism, the courage to learn from mistakes made, and a more optimistic attitude towards corporate responsibility would bring a much-needed breath of fresh air to the bioenergy debate.

With all criticism of the sustainability of bioenergy

We should not forget the criticism of today's bioenergy, which in my opinion is exaggerated, that the gaseous, liquid and solid bioenergy sources also offer great advantages for the social and economic sustainability of our society. This is especially true for a country like Germany that does not have any significant oil reserves of its own or petroleum companies that produce oil. If we focus too one-sidedly on the problems of bioenergy production in Germany, then we will probably miss the chance to use our outstanding position within the international bioenergy scene.

And I would like to remind the critics of bioenergy that ...

  1. ... bioenergy already makes a significantly better contribution to climate protection (see graphic Carbon footprint of biofuels) than most of the fossil fuel economy.
  2. ... bioenergy in all horror stories of Tank-or-plate debate one of the great hopes of many developing countries is finally theirs revolutionize agricultural production and improve their nutritional situation. For many developing countries, the import and supply of expensive fossil fuels cannot be financed.
  3. ... that 95 percent of the palm oil harvested is used for the production of food, cosmetics and candles. Even if that's partially rainforest deforestation taking place does not make better, just under 5 percent of palm oil is used for the production of biodiesel.
  4. ... the bioenergy industry is leading when it comes to the sustainability certification of agricultural raw materials and products. The biofuel industry is a pioneer here and is setting new standards for the development of sustainable agriculture. The critics can be proud of this development, because the sustainability systems for biofuels built up under their pressure are a real contribution to the protection of the environment and species within the entire agricultural production.

Graph on the carbon footprint of renewable energies

A more constructive approach to the strengths and weaknesses of bioenergy than that Responses to the bioenergy study the Leopoldina would certainly not hurt right away. With many bioenergy players, I break open doors with this wish.

Download the lectures on co-incineration and sustainability of biomass

Here you can see the "Specialist dialogue: Biomass co-incineration and sustainability - a contradiction? ”View and download the lectures held at the DENA event.

1 Comment on “Sustainability of biomass and the trauma of bioenergy enthusiasts”

  1. Dear Mr. Kirchner,
    thank you for your informative contribution, to which I would like to add some information and thoughts.
    For several years I coordinated the NGO platform “Sustainable Biomass” and have been dealing with the topic since then, as the forest and forest policy, on which I mainly work, is also affected.
    Mr. von Carlowitz was not a forest scientist, but a camera operator and chief miner of the Ore Mountains. His motivation was to secure the supply of the mines and processing plants with wood, because the forest was already a far overused ecosystem. His merits are really great!
    After many years of biofuel policy, we unfortunately have to say that - in addition to the positive developments in new technologies, the creation of good jobs and a certain amount of supplying energy demand - a kind of alibi policy has remained. Everyone has to answer for himself whether the actors in the industry have made themselves beneficiaries of this policy, or even helpers, or have to watch the goings-on impotently. The total emissions have risen further, bioenergy largely ekes out an existence as a replacement canister, additional fuel or flash in the pan, because there is no responsible energy or transport policy.
    The use of bioenergy could play a more or less large part in the decarbonisation of the economy - if the total consumption of energy (or the total output of emissions) were to decrease. As long as that does not happen, climate protection will unfortunately not be helped, because the atmosphere is not interested in avoided emissions, but only in the actual increase and the existing greenhouse gas concentration.
    We have to observe similar problems in other areas as well. For example, eucalyptus plantations are being created around the world for pulp production in order to “meet demand”, a need that is specifically increased by the inexpensive provision of additional raw materials. Despite the use of recycled paper, annual consumption is increasing and in Germany is currently over 250 kilos per person.
    Large land resources (forest and land areas) are also used or used for this. The quantities of vegetable oil freed up by the use of palm oil can easily be used for biofuels, whereas given the outstanding productivity of palm oil, as long as there is no objection to this, the consumption of these quantities of oil did not increase continuously (which leads to further occupancy of arable land). The economic sectors that work with soy (cattle feed), wood (energy wood) and other raw materials also work according to a similar pattern: growth, increasing money gains, concentration of power and profits are the driving forces behind such developments because the priority of The economy, and unfortunately also politics, is oriented almost exclusively to economic interests, and not to the fulfillment of sustainable development goals, such as the eradication of hunger and poverty, more education and preservation of ecological structures and functions of living spaces.
    As long as nothing changes, technical developments, as good and efficient and enjoyable as they are (and the bioenergy industry is really a good example!), Will not contribute to the major social, ecological, cultural and ultimately also economic crises to solve.
    It hurts when I see scientists and representatives of the bioenergy industry fighting over percentages and per thousand of efficiency, while at the same time a transport minister and with him a large part of the federal government does not even manage the fuel fraud, where it is around 25 to 40 Percent at the expense of the climate and the wallet of the consumer (!)
    It hurts when representatives of energy wood users campaign against the creation of some protected areas in the forest (it concerns the missing 2.7 percent of the forest area). Representatives of an industry that is responsible for less than 2 percent of primary energy use, while at the same time lignite-fired power plants waste gigantic amounts of energy and generate greenhouse gas emissions that could not be compensated for in centuries by using even the most efficient wood-fired power plants.
    The bioenergy industry must also urge the responsible politicians to do the more urgent homework if they do not want to be remembered by future generations as a secret profiteer of a failed policy and the beneficiary of an alibi climate and agricultural policy.
    Best Regards,
    Laszlo Maraz
    Coordination AG forest and dialogue platform forest
    Environment and Development Forum
    10117 Berlin

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