Turning waste into energy and reducing emissions from European livestock production

...the public goods potential of biogas production from organic waste.

The livestock problem:

In the EU, agriculture accounts for 9.1% of total GHG emissions and 12.8% when land use change (LUC) is accounted for. The CAPRI model life cycle analysis (LCA) shows that 85% of agricultural emissions come from livestock production. Furthermore, if we include in this analysis not only energy use on the farm but also energy use from related-industries, from land use and land use change (LULUC), we see that livestock emits 175% of agricultural emissions. Of these, beef and cow milk production are responsible for the highest share of CO2 and equivalent gas emissions (29% each), followed by pork production (25%).Manure management alone is responsible for 19% of agricultural emissions (two-thirds of which are methane). This is highly significant, especially when we consider that the global warming potential of methane is 21 times higher than CO2 and the global warming potential of N20 210 times higher than CO2.

Given these figures, it is remarkable that methane and nitrous oxide emissions have not been targeted by specific regulations and strategies as in the case of CO2. Various action plans and directives allude to the potential of waste to energy policies at both the European level and in the National Renewable Energy Action Plans. At European level these include: the Animal By-products Regulation which provides the basis for the use of animal by-products as biomass in a biogas plant, the Water Framework Directive which contains measures to prevent nitrogen leaching from the overuse of fertilisers, specifically by encouraging reductions of nitrogen in mineral fertilizers which can be replaced with digested manure, the Nitrates Directive which contains obligations to store manure in designated Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, the Landfill Directive which requires the gradual phasing out of organic waste in landfill sites, the IPPC Directive which encourages installations to manage offensive odours, and the Sewage Sludge Directive which prohibits the use of untreated sludge on crops outside specified measures, but seeks to facilitate the safe spreading of treated sewage sludge on commercial crops as fertiliser; particularly where it has undergone anaerobic digestion first (the case in biogas reactors.) In addition, 15 Member States have made funds available to support biogas installations under Axis 1 and 3 measures of the Rural Development Regulation. However, in most cases funding is limited, information pertaining to the socio-economic and environmental benefits of biogas production is lacking and no legislation sets specific targets or requirements for Member States in relation to energy production from organic and agricultural waste. We believe these issues need to be given serious consideration in the near future.

The regulatory context:

The EU White Paper on Renewable Energies aimed to increase renewable energy resources from 6% in 1995 to 12% by 2010. Biomass was projected to increase from 3% of the total in 1995 to 8% in 2010, coming from a combination of energy crops, agriculture and forest residues, and livestock production, sewage treatment and landfills.

At this point we feel that it is very important to make a clear separation between biomass from energy crops and biomass from manure and agricultural waste, as we believe the former to be both morally wrong and ambiguous in its effect on reducing GHGs from transport emissions, at times leading to higher emissions due to indirect land use change and reduced soil fertility. We believe the EU should refocus its research, strategies and investments onto scaling up renewable energies whichdo not affect food security or contradict development and biodiversity policies, and can instead make a positive socio-economic contribution to European energy production and help reduce agricultural emissions.

There is a huge potential in Europe to harness the 1500 million tonnes of manure which are produced in the EU every year (making manure the largest single source of biomass from the food/feed industry), for the sustainable production of renewable energies.

Biogas as a public good:

Biogas production from agricultural manure and organic waste can be seen as a public good because it helps transform an externality of livestock production into heat and energy. Methane emissions from storage are also reduced as well as emissions of nitrous oxides following the application of manure to fields. Biogas production lessens the need for fossil fuels, improves the fertiliser value of nitrogen in treated manure (which when used in place of mineral fertilisers reduces the possibility of nitrogen leaching from fertiliser run-off), and can substantially contribute to sustainable rural development and rural vitality by offering farmers additional income opportunities and creating new jobs. In addition, organic waste from the agro-food industry (breweries, sugar plants, fruit processors, slaughter houses and solid municipal waste) can also be added to manure and slurry in biogas plants.

Biogas production therefore sits at the interface between waste, energy and agricultural policy offering farmers and local industries the opportunity to supplement their income, deal efficiently with waste products and reduce emissions, while also producing energy and heat which can be either used on the farm and by local communities or sold to the grid in the case of larger and more centrally-managed biogas plants.

An uneven development of biogas across Europe

Biogas production can take the form of farm-scale plants and centralised co-digestion plants. In some areas, farm-scale plants are more suitable as they are simpler in design and involve lower operating costs and in other areas centralised plants will be more efficient as they can benefit from economies of scale and can export heat and electricity to district customers and even the national grid. However, creating the conditions for either system to succeed requires in most cases the removal of certain regulatory and economic barriers and the creation of financial incentives. The most significant barriers to large-scale biogas production are mostly legal and economic, rather than technical. They include low prices for the electricity produced from biogas, expensive infrastructure, uncoordinated energy, agriculture and environment policies and a complicated regulatory and spatial planning environment. This is particularly true where for example; land filling of organic waste is still very cheap; bans on applying treated organic waste to fields exist; planning permission for biogas plants is difficult to obtain; and economic benefits of biogas productions are poorly communicated to stakeholders. In some cases, poor implementation of EU agro-environmental legislation which should favour biogas production is also a major obstacle.

The administrative, legal and economic conditions affecting biogas development vary greatly across the different EU Member States and regions. The greatest progress regarding incentives and supporting frameworks has been made in Germany which is a world leader in biogas installations. To a lesser extent development has also progressed in the UK, Luxembourg, Austria and Denmark. In Germany in 2009, there were 4,984 in Germany, second largest in world, 1,893 MW of power, 16,000 jobs and provided 3.5 million households with power, that’s out of a total number of biogas plants in Europe in early 2010 of 5,900 biogas plants with an installed electrical capacity of 2,300 MW (Market for BG prod in Europe). All make investment aids available for biogas infrastructure under CAP pillar two measures. Interestingly though, it has been noted that in spite of such CAP investment aids for biogas plants of up to 100,000€ in Germany, it is the high feed-in tariffs for electricity from biomass which account for 90% of the subsidy value for renewable electricity from biogas. Indeed, the total expenditure on biogas production using organic waste (for on farm and local production) as a priority of axis 1 and 3 measures in the Rural Development regulation is just 62 million euros for the 15 Member states who are at present promoting the use of renewable energies under such measures. This serves to illustrate the necessity of policy instruments outside of the CAP to improve the investment conditions and economic efficiency of biogas production from organic waste.

Creating the right incentives

Examples of incentive measures outside Rural Development measures which can be deployed to incentivise the building of biogas plants include:

  • In the short-term, introducing feed-in tariffs to support the electricity price. This can help counteract the initially capital-intensive nature of biogas installations and connections to the national grid. E.g. in Germany, the price has been guaranteed for twenty years to create a strong financial incentive.
  • Favourable planning policies.
  • Market support such as the creation of Green certificates, and bonus credits for electricity which is produced from biogas.
  • The implementation and enforcement of existing legislation with provisions supporting biogas development, which includes the Nitrates, Sewage Sludge, IPPC, Water Framework, Waste Framework Directive.

Subsidies for building biogas plants and infrastructure to connect installations to the national grid, including axis 1 and 3 measures continue to bring added value but should be set within a coordinated framework for biomass which creates synergies between economic, environmental and energy policies.

Conclusions and key recommendations for EU decision makers:

Any meaningful climate change mitigation strategy at the EU level must acknowledge the extent of the methane problem as a by-product of livestock production and come up with strategies and frameworks to reduce these emissions in the long-term.

Future energy strategies at European and National level should emphasise the benefits of biogas production from waste as compared to biofuels production from energy crops (including second generation biofuels). In order to create clear policy signals for EU member states, a European Biowaste, or even a specific Biogas directive could be an appropriate framework, requiring for example, national action plans and targets specifying the share of renewable energy to come from manure and organic waste and targets for the minimum shares of manure to be co-digested in biogas plants (ideally this should be high and shares of energy crops low). The revision of the policy subsidising the planting of energy crops should also be considered - subsidies could instead be diverted towards investment for biogas installations.

Member States should also be encouraged to consider on a more systematic basis, the externality costs which biogas and other renewable energies entail when drawing up cost-benefit analyses –further research would help quantify such externality costs. Moreover, research and development should be encouraged to improve the technical development of biogas plants, and especially with regard to the possibilities for improving the yields from biogas production from animal manure alone or mixed with organic and municipal waste as opposed to energy crops.

Finally, it is vital that best practises from successful biogas operations be widely disseminated, for example in the framework of transnational cooperation and knowledge sharing, as well as through the organisation of seminars promoting the economic and public good advantages of biogas production.

All of these are necessary to counter the current lack of awareness amongst many farmers, economic actors, municipalities and other stakeholders about the benefits of biogas technology for rural communities.

Article by Alison Boyes

Sister associations

     RISE cooperates closely with its founding
     organisations, the European Landowners'
     Organization and Friends of  the Countryside.




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