Shaping European bioenergy policy

Bioenergy was once hailed as a key part of tackling climate change but there have been rising concerns over how efficiently it can reduce greenhouse gases emissions and the amount of land it requires. The IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program has been analyzing these issues for the European Commission, helping to shape EU policies.

In the EU, the use of bioenergy is on the rise. This is partly due to an increased focus on renewable energy, intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy security. However, biofuel production can occupy land that would otherwise be used to grow food and feed. This displacement can lead to deforestation when other areas are converted to agriculture, threatening biodiversity and offsetting some of the climate benefits.

In a study for the European Commission, IIASA researchers assessed the impacts of different biofuels on land-use change and climate. On one end of the spectrum, the study showed that certain types of vegetable oils, such as palm or soybean oil, can lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions. And on the other end, second generation biofuels— produced from waste such as forestry residues left after logging or cereal straw—showed a good performance overall, with several cases of net negative emissions.

The study was used as important input to the 2016 proposed revision of the EU Renewable Energy Directive. Under the new proposal, starting in 2020, the European Commission intends to promote advanced biofuels that do not compete with food, and to progressively phase out crop-based biofuels from the EU energy consumption.

In other work on biofuels, the European Commission asked a group of researchers led by IIASA to assess how increasing bioenergy demand would affect forests, the forestry industry, and other sectors that rely on biomass.

Emission intensity of different biofuel feedstock consumed in the EU and analysis of impact of some policy mixes

The team showed that increased demand would place increased pressure on forest ecosystems and their resources, both in and outside of Europe. However, worldwide protection for biodiversity and land with high carbon storage could lead to global greenhouse gas emissions from the land-use sector 10 metric megatons lower than without protections.

Differences in global land-use net emissions for the Land and Roundwood Cap scenarios in comparison to a reference scenario. The Land scenario represents a case where land criteria are implemented to restrict biomass harvests in areas with high biodiversity value and/or high carbon stocks, and the Roundwood Cap scenario represents a case with the same land criteria as well as a cap on the use of roundwood for energy.

Using these IIASA analyses, the European Commission proposed a number of revisions to the Renewable Energy Directive to ensure that bioenergy achieves robust and verifiable emissions savings.

Further work for the European Commission concerned the importance of the EU’s land-use sector as a carbon sink. Following the Paris climate agreement, the European Commission published a proposal to include the land-use sector in its emission-reduction commitments. The commitments, as well as their breakdown to individual countries—known as the “Effort sharing Regulation”—were based on research and modeling work conducted at IIASA using the Global Biosphere Management and Global Forest Models.

Based on IIASA analyses, the European Commission proposed to allow member states to use up to 280 metric megatons of CO2 of land-use sector credits—from afforestation or grassland management—from 2021-2030 to achieve their mitigation targets. This should provide additional incentives for mitigation in the land-use sector.


[1] Capros P, De Vita A, Tasios N, Siskos P, Kannavou M, Petropoulos A, Evangelopoulou S, Zampara M, et al. (2016). EU Reference Scenario 2016 – Energy, transport and GHG emissions Trends to 2050. EUROPEAN C OMMISSION Directorate – General for Energy, Directorate – General for Climate Action and Directorate – General for Mobility and Transport, Luxembourg.

[2] Forsell N, Korosuo A, Havlik P, Valin H, Lauri P, Gusti M, Kindermann G, & Obersteiner M (2016). Study on impacts on resource efficiency of future EU demand for bioenergy. Task 3: Modelling of impacts of an increased EU bioenergy demand on biomass production, use and prices. Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 109 pp.

[3] Forsell N, Korosuo A, Lauri P, Gusti M, Havlik P, Böttcher H, & Hennenberg K (2016). Follow-up study on impacts on resource efficiency of future EU demand for bioenergy (ReceBio follow-up). Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

[4] Valin H, Peters D, van den Berg M, Frank S, Havlik P, Forsell N, Hamelinck C, Pirker J, et al. (2015). The land use change impact of biofuels consumed in the EU: Quantification of area and greenhouse gas impacts. ECOFYS Netherlands B.V., Utrecht, Netherlands.


  • Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program, IIASA
  • National Technical University Of Athens, Greece
  • EuroCare, Germany
  • Indufor Oy, Finland
  • Institute for European Environmental Policy, UK
  • Öko-Institut e.V., Germany
  • European Forest Institute, Finland
  • European Commission
  • Ecofys, Netherlands
  • E4tech, UK