Biomass: Cascading use equals best life cycle assessment

Dismantling the barriers to material use of biomass

Deutsche Version:

Bioenergy, and biofuels in particular, is the subject of much controversy. Does material use of biomass to make building materials, bioplastics or lubricants pose a better alternative? A research project done on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) has completed a first-time, in-depth study on the issue, and the results show that the material use of renewable resources before they are used to produce energy saves fossil fuels, cuts greenhouse gas emissions and increases added value. The resource wood should enter a longer value chain as construction material or in the wood products industry. It can then be used to make furniture, for example. Thereafter it can be used to produce energy as wood pellets. This cascading use must be positioned at the centre of a long-term strategy of resource-efficient and sustainable use of biomass.

Wood, maize starch, wheat, vegetable oils and sugar are among the most common biogenic material resources. Greater material use of renewable resources in Germany would have considerable ecological and economic potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create added value and employment, say the results of the scenarios in the project. These scenarios assumed that material use is made of all the biomass that Germany has used for energy up to now.

Life cycle assessments show that material use of biomass is similar in many ways to its use as energy source, but cascading use of the resource, in which energy use follows material use, is far better than its use for energy only. There are also economic advantages to the material use of biomass as it can generate five to ten times the gross added value from the same amount of biomass and has similar effects on employment. This is mainly because of the long and complex value-added chains that are common to material use of biomass.

The material use of biomass is not financially supported at present. It is hardly competitive compared to energy use. A number of different programmes and regulations encourage the farming of energy crops and their processing for direct use as energy, in part through tax benefits. This increases the demand for biomass and thus its price, which in turn triggers higher prices for farmland and soil and ultimately prevents any cascading use that is ecologically and economically viable. Cascading use would position wood in a longer recycling chain, ideally with first use as building material, next as particle board, then as furniture, and thereafter for small furniture such as shelves. Only then – when it is no longer suited to make wood-based products – can it be used for energy.

UBA Vice-President Thomas Holzmann said, “The best use of biomass is cascading use. Wood and other plant substances should be made into construction wood furniture or other new products as long as possible. Only thereafter should residual materials and waste be used as an energy source. The Federal Environment Agency therefore recommends that equal conditions be put into place which apply to both material use of biomass as well as energy source and which promote the development of cascading use. It represents the optimal, most resource-efficient use of biomass.”

The current distortions of competition in favour of biomass for energy could be offset by a number of different measures. The EU Renewable Energies Directive and the Renewable Energy Sources Act, for example, could better position cascading use of fresh biomass versus the immediate use as energy source. Another possible instrument is the Market Incentive Programme for Renewable Energies (MAP), which is a support scheme for heat energy production in biomass installations. If this support were phased out and demand for logwood, wood chips and pellet heating systems also decreased, the competition between material use and energy use of biomass would relax significantly. An increase in VAT for fuelwood would also help to achieve this aim. VAT is currently at a reduced rate of seven per cent.

Germany nowadays consumes some 90 million tonnes of renewable resources. Nearly half of that amount (48%) is for material use and the other half (52%) for energy. Wood is the most important renewable raw material in terms of quantity. It is used in the sawmilling and timber-based material industries, as construction timber in buildings, in furniture production, and in the paper and cellulose industry. Oleochemistry and the chemical industry use vegetable oils, for example to make paints, varnishes and lubricants, and starchy and sugary plants to manufacture surfactants and biobased plastics.

The land area used to grow renewable resources which are grown for material use is 2.15 billion hectares worldwide. Main resources include wood, the starch plants maize and wheat, the oil plants oil palm and coconut, sugar cane, cotton and natural rubber.

Further information:

The research project “Environmental Innovation Policy – Greater resource efficiency and climate protection through the sustainable material use of biomass” was commissioned by the Federal Environment Agency and funded by the Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMUB). The project ran in 2010-2013 under the overall control of nova-Institut GmbH in Hürth and in cooperation with IFEU-Institut (Heidelberg), Öko-Institut (Darmstadt) and FiFo-Institut (Cologne) .

Ökologische Innovationspolitik – Mehr Ressourceneffizienz und Klimaschutz durch nachhaltige stoffliche Nutzungen von Biomasse – Kurzfassung

Ökologische Innovationspolitik – Mehr Ressourceneffizienz und Klimaschutz durch nachhaltige stoffliche Nutzungen von Biomasse – Langfassung

Environmental Innovation Policy – Greater resource efficiency and climate protection through the sustainable material use of biomass – Short Version


Umweltbundesamt, press release, 2014-02-14.


IFEU - Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung Heidelberg GmbH
nova-Institut GmbH
Öko-Institut e.V.
Universität zu Köln


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