Biomass: from controversy to development agenda*

Biomass is moving increasingly into the spotlight as an energy source, but it is also eliciting increasing debate. Biomass is seen as playing a key role, providing massive opportunities. Based in part on its estimated potential, policy-makers are now setting targets, in the United States as well the EU, including the Netherlands. It is as if policy-makers were on a quest for a ‘green grail’. There are also doubts, though: is all this really feasible? Is there really all this scope and, indeed, physical space for biomass? Or do the drawbacks outweigh the benefits?

At the request of the Netherlands Energy Council (AER). the environmental consultancy Advies voor duurzaamheid teamed up with CE Delft to analyse the debate. What are the pivotal issues? How are these amenable to influence? And how can the controversy be transformed into a widely supported development agenda? At a round-table meeting with the Netherlands’ key biomass experts a solid step in this direction was taken.

The main conclusion is that the present behaviour of the biomass industry is not what was predicted in earlier studies of technical potential. These studies reported on vast tracts of marginal land and a broad range of waste streams being interesting sources of biomass, but in the real world the market is using highly productive, fertile soils for its raw materials. This very different trend is readily explainable (the government policies driving the market reward unsustainable biomass just as much as sustainable), but creates major risks in terms of competition with food and ecosystem destruction. To reverse this trend requires a new development agenda for biomass, agriculture and livestock production. Elements of such an agenda are provided in this advisory document, in which the core recommendation is to achieve better integration of global policies in the realms of spatial planning, farming and conservation.


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