The soil in the bio-economy

At the request of the Dutch Soil Protection Technical Committee (TCB) CE Delft and Biomass Research have investigated the impact on soils of further development of the biobased economy. Policymakers in the Netherlands and the EU are keen to see this grow to a share of 25-30% in the overall economy by 2030-2040. Under these plans biomass will be used in the energy sector (electricity, heat, gas), transport sector (biodiesel, bioethanol) and chemical industry. For 21 biomass supply chains this study examines the effects on the organic matter content of soils, the nutrient requirements (NPK), water consumption, land use, ecotoxicity and climate balance, including soil effects. 

The main result to emerge from the analysis is that there are major differences between the various biomass chains. Some have positive effects on soil organic matter balance, require low nutrient inputs and  score well on climate balance, while others need up to ten times more inputs for the same contribution to the biobased economy. Chains in which nutrients are returned to the soil perform relatively better, for example ethanol production with return of the lignin fraction. Ethanol from sugarcane also scores fairly high, but only on condition that leaves and heads are not burned, but left on the field. 

The supply chains in question have also been translated into a number of complete scenarios for European conversion to a 25% biobased economy. This confirmed that varying the precise design of the scenarios has a major impact on soil parameters.

Based on this analysis, we recommend that greater attention be paid to the soil effects of biobased supply chains in policies relating to the biobased economy, for example by including more detailed descriptions of  soil-related aspects in sustainability criteria and subsidies. 

The results of the study are presented in a Main Report and in separate Appendices detailing agricultural aspects.

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