Bioenergy as a low carbon energy: Promoting bio-based economy in the Baltic Sea Region

Dilip Khatiwada
Ph.D., Associate Professor
Division of Energy Systems, KTH Royal Institute of Technology

1. Introduction
Security of energy supply, promotion of the bio-economy, nutrient recycling, and innovation are prioritized policy areas in the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUBSR) aiming at conserving the sea, connecting the region, and increasing the economic prosperity of its inhabitants. Bioenergy is an abundant renewable resource in the region, which can be deployed to explore multiple environmental and socio-economic benefits. It can play an essential role in providing energy security, diversifying energy sources, and mitigating climate change in the region. However, if not properly managed, the use of land for energy crops may affect food supply and forest cover, reducing the natural adaptive capacity to climate change impacts.  Therefore, the entire supply chains of bioenergy and eco-systems services, interdependencies and trade-offs between ecosystem services and other economic activities should be examined. Understanding the interlinkages between energy transition, ecosystem services, and climate change is necessary for building a resilient economy. How can we harness the full potential of bioenergy while maintaining ecosystem services? What are the potential synergies for bioenergy development in the bioeconomy? What are the challenges for meeting low-carbon development in the region? This article reflects a brief assessment and highlights the need for an integrated systems approach in the region.

2. The role of bioenergy in the Baltic Sea Region
Fossil fuels dominate the primary energy consumption in the Baltic Sea Region. The share of bioenergy in the primary energy supply of Sweden and Finland is quite significant. Sweden, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland do not have fossil reserves, while Estonia has a vast reserve of oil shale. Sweden, Finland, and Sweden have the highest shares of renewable energy, that is, 60%, 44%, and 42%, respectively[i]. Lithuania is also progressing well in terms of energy supply from renewable sources. Meanwhile, Poland has less than 16% renewables in final energy consumption in spite of their huge bioenergy potential.

Bioenergy is a versatile energy source with varying feedstock, conversion technologies and end uses. The supply of biomass can be classified into three broad sectors – forestry, agriculture and waste. The Baltic region has abundant biomass resources which are largely untapped. Bioenergy is one of the leading energy carriers in Sweden and Finland. These two countries have the highest share of forest cover in the region, with more than 65% of the land area being forests. Estonia and Latvia had 54% and 53% of their land covered by forests. Bioenergy can play a key role in achieving Estonia’s goal to reach 80% of heat and 50% of electricity from renewables by 2030. Denmark has 15% forest cover but residues from agriculture can be quite significant. In Lithuania, the share of biomass in district heating (DH) has increased from 2% to 68% between 2000 and 2018. Forests cover approximately 34% of Lithuania, and heating with biomass is up to 3 times cheaper than heating with natural gas.

One of the key areas of biomass utilization in the region is the production and trade of wood pellets. Sweden, Latvia and Estonia are among the major pellet producers. Lithuania is relatively small in comparison but exports most of its wood pellets production. The same goes for Latvia, a major producer and exporter of pellets. Denmark is the EU’s 2nd largest importer of wood pellets while Latvia is the one of largest exporters of wood pellets globally.

3. The need of integrated assessment: Balancing bioenergy and ecosystems services
The region is one of the largest suppliers of ecosystems services and one of most species abundant in Europe. The increase demand of bioenergy might put pressure on the environment, affecting land use, carbon sequestration, ecological connectivity, and biodiversity. Additionally, bioenergy, agriculture and forestry systems overlap each other when it comes to land use and water resource use, and activities such food and energy production and maintenance of multiple ecosystem services. The focus should be at balancing the renewable sector with the carrying capacity of ecosystem services by employing a geographically explicit engineering model for systems optimization. Integrated planning reduces the risk of economic and environmental losses, keeps the region attractive for living and working, strengthens competitiveness and stimulates future investments. While addressing energy sustainability, solutions should simultaneously support climate strategies, maintaining and/or enhancing ecosystems services, and exploring synergetic opportunities for a low carbon and climate resilient economy in the Baltic Sea Region. A holistic, quantitative, and multiscale approach is necessary in order to avoid the shifting of environmental burdens. Thus, a coherent and integrated approach for the utilization of bioresources is required when dealing with the challenges of climate change, resource efficiency, economic prosperity, and food security.

4. Promoting bio-based economy in the Baltic Sea Region
The bioeconomy concept primarily includes: (a) sustainable production of bioresources with the aim to reduce both anthropogenic climate impacts and the dependency on fossil-based products, and (b) increased added value of biomass materials considering a reduced consumption of natural resources. Thus, it is important to evaluate the bioresources potential, conversion into multiple products (biofuels, food, bio-materials, etc.), nutrient recycling, and synergies for climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. The bioeconomy offers a unique opportunity to address inter-connected societal challenges such as food security, natural resource depletion, and climate change impact, while simultaneously achieving sustainable economic development. The use of bio-waste and bio-based processes can provide starting points for an innovative approach to substitute fossil-based products. Bioeconomy is one of the key policy areas of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUBSR) and it is strongly linked with the overall prosperity and green growth of the region. The Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, also known as HELCOM, action areas include agriculture and industrial/municipal releases, among others. Reduction of nutrient release to the sea and nutrient recycling in agriculture and wastewater treatment plants are planned. Diverting solid and liquid waste away from the sea, and using it for biogas and organic fertilizer production can promote significant change.  The development of a bioeconomy needs to be considered in its potential to promote the EUBSR, goals set by the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan, and implementation of the Renewables Directive and the Paris Agreement to the climate convention.

Bioenergy is already part of the local economies but great potential still exists which can be explored as part of the EUBSR strategy. Integrated assessment facilitates understanding of bioenergy and bioeconomy developments in the region and enhance the involvement of stakeholders and local communities in transparent decision-making process. Last but not least, the interconnectivity within the region but also beyond – i.e. with the rest of Europe – need to be considered in decision making and planning.

[i] EU – Renewable energy statistics.

Author would like to acknowledge project partners involved in the “BioGreenBaltic project – bioenergy and ecosystems services for low-carbon development in the Baltic Sea Region” project. The project was funded by the Swedish Institute.


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