Research project creates new fundamentals for an evaluation of the German bioeconomy

Press Release of the University of Kassel 24/17 – March 22, 2017

Scientists examine in a nationwide project how severe the environment is influenced by the so-called bioeconomy. The objective is an assessment of the ecological and socio-ecological impacts of the bioeconomy in Germany.

The term “bioeconomy” refers to the sectors of the economy which produces, processes, consumes and recycles biogenic products: from agriculture, forestry and fishery over food production, renewable resources, the usage of biotechnological methods or furniture production to waste management and the generation of bioenergy.  The project SYMOBIO (Systemic Monitoring and Modelling of the Bioeconomy) examines the national and international production for the German market.

Different teams of researchers investigate the environmental impacts of products made from biomass, like biofuels or food like margarine. Within the scope of the project, the whole production chain from agricultural land-use to production, processing, product usage as well as waste management is assessed. The main objective is collecting data of the total resource use of the biobased economy sectors as well as in the whole economy, linked with its impact on environment and climate, rather than the evaluation of single products.

The researcher consortium comprises eight different institutes and companies coordinated by Prof. Dr. Stefan Bringezu – Professor for Sustainable Resource Management and Director at the Center for Environmental Systems Research (CESR) of the University of Kassel. Bringezu: “A simple energy transition, through the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG), is not enough in order to have a sustainable economy and preserve the environment. What we need is a resource transition – meaning we have to economize ecologically and decrease the amount of used resources. For this purpose, we need higher detailed information about the consequences of our economic activity and the normative constraints.” For example, one objective of SYMOBIO is to clarify to what extent the increasing usage of agricultural raw materials, which has a direct impact on the land use change in tropical regions, is in agreement with the UN Convention goal to preserve biodiversity. A further objective is to answer how much agricultural land Germany is using for final consumption of products and to assess its linked impact on the environment.

In addition, the project assesses the water usage of German imports in relation to the water availability in the different countries of origin. Considering the increasing demand of wood, the final consumption of timber based products is compared to the possible amount that can be harvested sustainably. On this basis, different models for a systemic monitoring are derived applicable in economy and politics. “We want to regain an overview of the bio-economy by assessing the whole system instead of single products”, says Bringezu.

Using the example of biodiesel, Bringezu explains: “Biofuels are subsidized because of their product life cycle analysis but this calculation does not show the whole picture.” Especially the exploitation of newly prepared cultivation sites have to be taken into account. “Indonesia, for example, uses peat soils to cultivate palm trees for the production of biodiesel. During the drainage process, the former wet conserved plant parts fall dry and oxidize, which emits CO2.” Consequently, biodiesel from palm oil may have an up to 20 times higher GHG emission rate than conventional diesel. In fact, the currently existing certification procedures for products like imported biodiesel exclude the share directly produced on peat soils. However, the indirect usage affected by the constant growth of biobased products is not affected. “Not everything which is classified as “bio” has a positive environmental impact. In many cases a shift of problems can be observed,” reminds Bringezu.

SYMOBIO is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and has a total budget of 3.0 million €, with a share of 1.13 million € provided for the University of Kassel. The project has a duration of 36 month and ends in February 2020.