In their fight against climate change, the European Union member states ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002 and great efforts have been made ever since to fulfil the commitment to reduce their collective greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the 2008-2012 period by 8% from the 1990 level. Since the energy supply and use sector is one of the main emitters of greenhouse gases, EU’s leaders endorsed in 2007 an integrated approach to climate and energy policy with a series of demanding targets to be met by 2020, also known as the 20-20-20 targets. This climate and energy package, which aims at a reduction in EU GHG emissions of at least 20% below 1990 levels, 20% of EU energy consumption to come from renewable sources, and 20% reduction in primary energy use compared with projected levels (energy efficiency), became law in June 2009.

One of the six legislative texts is the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) (2009/28/EC) which sets for each member state a mandatory national target for the overall share of energy from renewable sources in gross final energy consumption.

In the case of Belgium, the RED target is set at 13% of which 3.3% was reached in 2008, mainly due to the deployment of biomass for energy. To promote the use of renewable energy sources, Belgium has adapted various policies and measures such as obligatory blending and tax reduction for biofuels, ecological investment subsidies, fiscal deduction for investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy, and green certificates schemes. These support policies are of crucial importance since, in spite of the huge potential, the production of bioenergy is at the moment uneconomic without significant subsidies, especially for farm-scale plants.  Financing is difficult due to high costs and often high level of uncertainty with regard to renewable energy technology.

More information on EU bioenergy policy and legislation is available at the EC Renewable Energy website under the headings Bioenergy and Biofuels, and on the Transparency Platform.

Despite the high expectations concerning the use of biomass for energy, increased controversy has arisen amongst scientist and policy makers with regard to the sustainability of these renewable energy systems. Sustainability is a versatile and dynamic concept, and many scientists from varying disciplines have tried to grasp the issue in well-defined and scientifically based frameworks. 

In general, sustainability is considered to consist of three dimensions: the environmental, the economic and the social dimension, also known as PPP or people, planet and profit. Within these dimensions, a varied set of key principles can be defined, which constitute the fundamental basis for sustainable development. These principles can then be translated into criteria which add meaning and operationality to a principle, and further into indicators which are measurable variables (qualitative and/or quantitative) used to infer the status of a particular criterion. By measuring all defined indicators, and comparing them to a given standard or threshold, the sustainability of a given system can be assessed.

Bioenergy might sound promising with respect to GHG emission mitigation, fossil fuel dependency and rural development, but many concerns are expressed regarding the environmental (e.g. water, soil and air quality, biodiversity), social (e.g. food security, human and labour rights) and economical (e.g. local well-being, employment generation) impacts of large-scale biomass production. Therefore, the EU integrated sustainability criteria into the Renewable Energy Directive and mandated their implementation by member states by December 2010. At the moment, these criteria only concern biofuels for transport and bio liquids. In order to be counted towards the renewable energy targets laid down in this Directive and to benefit from national support schemes, biofuels and bioliquids must fulfil the sustainability criteria. For electricity, heating and cooling from solid and gaseous biomass, the European Commission published a report in 2010 on sustainability requirements, which is not binding. The sustainability criteria detailed in the RED mainly regard environmental impacts of bioenergy production. These relate to overall efficiency in terms of GHG emissions reductions and specify which type of land can be used to produce the biomass.

This context together with the high variability in biomass sources and conversion technologies complicate such assessments.

Various schemes and tools have been developed that try to take up this challenge. Nevertheless, these tools principally focus on either environmental or economic impacts. Hence, the ecological and socio-economic requirements and consequences of bioenergy projects are often insufficiently examined. Furthermore, most tools only regard the production of biofuels and do not take the production of electricity and/or heat into consideration. At last the calculation of the impacts cannot be carried out easily and requires expert knowledge. This could be the reason why such projects which are mostly initiated with good intentions fail from a environmental or socio-economic point of view.

Therefore, a new tool (B-SAT or Bioenergy Sustainability Assessment Tool) has been developed that can be used to estimate both environmental and socio-economic sustainability impacts of various bioenergy systems for the production of biofuels and/or heat and electricity.