The European Bioeconomy Strategy [1
] aims to “strengthen and boost biobased sectors”. By definition, the bioeconomy includes “all primary production sectors that use and produce biological resources (agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture); and all economic and industrial sectors that use biological resources and processes to produce food, feed, bio-based products, energy and services. To be successful, the European bioeconomy needs to have sustainability and circularity at its heart.”
Since the 1970s, industrial ecology and industrial metabolism discussions coin the term Circular Economy (C.E.), the C.E. has been used as a guideline in policy-making, especially in China and Europe. Today the C.E. is mainly attributed to electronic waste (see Circular Economy Action plan [2
]) and recently also plastics (see Plastic Strategy [3
The Annex of the draft proposal for a European Partnership for a Circular Biobased Europe [4
] argues why also a bioeconomy is inherently a C.E.; biobased sectors have CO2
-avoidance and retention, reduction, recycling and reuse of wastes and residues as its goals, all traits which have been primarily credited to the circular economy. The success of both the circular bioeconomy and the broader circular economy depend on a sustainable feedstock supply. However, shifting the respective primary economic sectors, i.e., the feedstock supply, to sustainable practices comes with considerable technical, societal and organizational challenges that have to be addressed [5
The current bioenergy provision is mainly based on wood chips, wood pellets or first generation biofuel plantations [7
]. The underlying resources are mobilized primarily for material services (e.g., construction wood, pulp and paper) [8
], while first generation biofuel resource provision use similar production techniques and supply chains as agricultural production. As a result and in their review on bioenergy supply and demand scenarios and projections, Mandley et al. [9
] stress a potential mismatch due to limited modelling and analysis of crucial conversion processes between fresh biomass and end-user services. A plethora of underutilized, non-commodity biomass resources is still not touched upon, which could become the feedstock basis for the circular bioeconomy of tomorrow. These resources can be categorized in energy crops-, forestry and agricultural residues, and biogenic waste [10
]. However, they are diverse in, e.g., physical properties (energy density, moisture content, ash content but also contamination such as sand/plastic), origin (landscape management, residential garden/kitchen waste) and legal status (waste vs. resources/material). The current biomass provision structures are unfit to take on this diversity and cannot ensure the sustainability of feedstock supply in an ecological, social and economical fashion. Therefore, we have to address the research question on feasible strategies for mobilizing and deploying these local, low-value and heterogeneous biomass resources.
Thus, and for the present paper, we are building upon the work of the IEA Bioenergy Task40 scientists and their expertise on international bioenergy trade and the current provision of bioenergy. To address all sustainability dimensions, mobilization strategies have to respect planetary boundaries [12
] and have to be financially viable and contribute to other societal goals. Especially for the provision of local and low-value biomass resources, this means supporting structurally weak and rural regions. The research focuses on the European Union concerning policies but is also inspired by technology- and market developments in the rest of the world.
2. Materials and Methods
This work is based on an extensive discussion on biomass mobilization strategies between International Energy Agency (IEA) Bioenergy Technology Collaboration Program (TCP) Task 40 scientists. The expertise of the authors and discussion participants undoubtedly defines the scope of the presented findings. Task40 initially focused on international bioenergy trade. However, the established supply-chain knowledge proved to be applicable to strategic questions about biomaterials as well (see, e.g., Schipfer et al. [14
]). The international consortium specializes by now on the “deployment of biobased value chains” in support of a broader, circular bioeconomy. Systemic assessments, including the utilization of bioenergy, as, e.g., discussed for energy system models in Chang et al. [15
], are increasing in spatial, temporal and sectoral resolutions. The IEA Bioenergy Task40 follows this zeitgeist by dedicating a task force to Regional Transitions
studies. For the sake of this paper, we understand “region” as an area that could have its own characteristics or even administration. We refrain from setting a precise definition, but as a rule of thumb, “regions”, “regional” and “local” could span from municipalities, the lowest local administrative unit to groups of districts, or the NUTS 3 level.
For this paper, the IEA Bioenergy Task40 experts focused on transferring and extending their knowledge on current bioenergy carrier provision structures to the local, low-value feedstock base of tomorrows circular bioeconomy. During the discussions within the Task force and based on previous works on mobilization strategies for bioenergy of lower spatial and sectoral resolution (e.g., Junginger et al. [7
]), we collect information on respective current developments, barriers and opportunities. The discussion is further complemented by scientific literature on the identified topics and a collection of unpublished research- and development projects. The here presented collection does not claim completeness or indicates any ranking of importance. Instead, it aims at creating a coherent reference work on challenges and opportunities for novel biomass provision structures. It should be used to derive key concepts for follow-up scientific-, market- or patent research. To facilitate the analysis and discussion beyond the project, we cluster the topics into three categories; legislative framework, market structures and technological innovation (see Figure 1
This paper’s Results and Discussion (Section 3
) are structured following the outlined categories, starting with the lowest assessment level, highlighting top-down the current developments, opportunities, and barriers in the European legislative framework before zooming into the highest assessment level on bottom-up technological innovation mobilization strategies. The Results and Discussion section is completed with an analysis of biomass markets for energy and material use. The Conclusions section (Section 4
) connects the different assessment levels back together and provides recommendations and limitations of the present study.
We assess mobilization strategies for local, low-value and heterogenous biomass feedstock. Respective feedstocks, including energy crops-, forestry- and agricultural residues and biogenic wastes, are identified as the backbone of the circular bioeconomy of tomorrow. In contrast to currently deployed biomass for energy purposes, novel provision structures face considerable technical-, societal- and organizational challenges.
To explore and discuss these challenges, we are building upon the IEA Bioenergy Task40 expertise on international bioenergy trade and the current provision of bioenergy. For the present paper, we aim at transferring and extending our knowledge on current bioenergy carrier provision structures to the local, low-value feedstock base of the circular bioeconomy.
This approach exhibits limitations on each of the three assessment levels: The (1) legislative framework level limits the scope to top-down frameworks and the E.U. policy landscape. A first attempt to overcome the top-down view is made by bringing together findings from international projects on regional biomass mobilization. The (2) innovation level assessment is limited to technological innovation only. This limitation is mainly due to the available expertise in the consortium. However, social and organizational innovations also visibly coined the findings of all three assessment levels. For the (3) market creation level, the results and discussion section builds on the authors’ particularly strong scientific background. The remaining limitations concern the under-researched nature of this area; they include limited scientific, energy-economic publications on electronic bioenergy carrier trading or comparative discussions of different market structures and market instruments.
We find that the E.U. policy landscape, especially under Covid recovery’s umbrella, provides significant funds for regional development and biomass mobilization. Most regional action plans shifted to international, quantitative potential assessment approaches to provide biomass to different Bioeconomy sectors. The next frontier can be seen moving towards Multilevel governance, entangling governance levels from neighborhoods to E.U. governance. Respective opportunities for regional biomass mobilization are particularly exciting since the circular bioeconomy exhibits an outstanding decentralization- and thus resource democratization potential.
The niche technological innovations for the mobilization of local, low-value and heterogenous biomass resources already exist. They include mainly pre-treatment technologies, GIS-supported planning and novel primary biomass sources. However, ensuring economic and ecological sustainability while down-scaling pre-treatment technologies to the smallest possible functional unit need to be addressed. In return, mobile or at least portable pre-treatment and densification plants could induce valuable operational flexibility. Mobile pre-treatment, coupled with big-data and GIS support, could overcome the challenges of seasonal fluctuations and in-homogenous geographical feedstock distribution.
However, markets for local, low-value and heterogenous biomass resources are largely underdeveloped. Physical- and virtual bio-hubs and market platforms are required to connect the highly diverse supply side with the demand side for biomaterials and bioenergy. Today, these hubs are rather an exception than the rule; numerous attempts of establishing virtual market platforms have failed over the years. The heterogeneity of market actors and the traded goods can be identified as a major challenge, also for successful platforms such as the eRA-straw market. With this regard, commoditization is addressed as a double-edged sword; without environmental and socioeconomic standards, market creation might be at the expense of biodiversity and stakeholder variety.
The challenges and opportunities of the three assessment levels point towards a common denominator: The quantification of the systemic value of strengthening the potentially last remaining primary economic sectors, forestry, agriculture and aquaculture, is missing. With the eroding importance of other primary economic sectors, including fossil fuel extraction and minerals mining, the time is now to assess and act upon the value of the supply side of a circular bioeconomy. This value includes the support the Bioeconomy can provide to structurally vulnerable regions by creating meaningful jobs and activities in and strengthening the resource democratic significance of rural areas.
Energy system and circular bioeconomy modelling could play an important role, theoretically simulating the systemic value, e.g., of temporal- and spatial flexibility of pre-treatment technologies and of stakeholder diversity in markets and multilevel governance. Therefore, modelling should account for multiple assessment criteria and modelling functions, based on all types of resources, including monetary-, natural-, CO2-budget- but also human resources. Based on the theoretical work, sound recommendations for biomass mobilization action plans, technology investment decisions and market organization should be derived.