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First generation sugars just as important as second-generation for bio-based chemicals industry - new study

An extensive sustainability study carried out by Germany-based nova-Institute shows that first-generation fermentable sugar is just as advantageous for a sustainable raw materials strategy of the European chemical industry as second-generation sugar. The results indicate that the "systematic discrimination" of first-generation sugar agricultural commodities in public perception and debate is in no way scientifically justifiable. And that it is counterproductive.

In the study “Sugar as Feedstock for the Chemical Industry“, twelve main criteria were selected to assess the sustainability of first and second generation fermentable sugars for use in bio-based chemicals.

The selection of criteria was based on the latest standards and certification schemes for bio-based fuels and materials, including a wide range of environmental, social and economic aspects. Because of the “persistent accusation” that the use of first-generation raw materials endangers food security, special attention was given to this particular criterion.

The analysis of the twelve different sustainability criteria shows that all examined raw materials display clear strengths in terms of sustainability, but also certain weaknesses. However, all raw materials lead to a considerable reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission savings per tonne of bio-based chemicals for different bio-based feedstocks compared with their petrochemical counterparts (graphic courtesy nova-Institut).

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission savings per tonne of bio-based chemicals for different bio-based feedstocks compared with their petrochemical counterparts (graphic courtesy nova-Institut).

Land-use efficiency

Although second-generation sugars perform better in this regard, the advantage is clearly put into perspective if it is offset against abatement costs. Reducing GHG emissions with second-generation sugars is a comparatively expensive way to mitigate climate change.

The study finds that the use of first-generation raw materials, often criticised as having negative effects on food security, actually point in exactly the opposite direction. Competition for arable land is offset by the excellent land-use efficiency of first-generation agricultural crops. Especially sugar beet and the presence of protein-rich by-products especially wheat and maize.

Dried distiller's grains, an important animal feed co-product of corn (maize) ethanol production.

Dried distiller’s grains, an important animal feed co-product of corn (maize) ethanol production.

In this context, the use of short-rotation coppice (SRC) for sugar production represents much greater competition for arable land, since the same sugar yield requires a larger cultivation area and provides no additional protein by-products.

No scientific basis for “systematic discrimination”

Furthermore, the results clearly show that the “systematic discrimination” of first-generation sugars in public perception and debate is in no way scientifically justifiable.

On the way to a climate-friendly Europe, bio-based chemicals from all raw materials offer advantages in terms of reducing GHG emissions and should equally be part of a sustainable future strategy for the European chemical industry.

The report analyses the strengths and weaknesses of all available raw materials for the production of bio-based chemicals, based on criteria such as greenhouse gas balance, greenhouse gas abatement costs, land efficiency, food security, protein by-products, employment, rural development, livelihood of farmers and forest workers, direct and indirect risks of land-use change (LUC / iLUC), logistics, infrastructure, availability, traceability, social impacts, biodiversity as well as air and soil quality.

The results for the individual plant groups can be summarised as follows:

Sugar plants – the greatest strength of sugarcane and sugar beet is their extraordinarily high land-use efficiency. No other biomass can produce so much fermentable sugar per hectare. A high reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and, above all, the lowest GHG abatement costs are further advantages. Infrastructure and logistics are well developed in this area and sugar beet by-products are used as animal feed.

The biggest disadvantages are the effects of intensive agriculture on water, air and soil and the diversity of species – albeit limited to a comparatively small area due to the high land-use efficiency.

Starch plants – the main advantage of starch plants lies in their protein-containing by-products, which have a high value as animal feed. The land efficiency is lower than for sugar plants but higher than for wood. The reduction of GHG emissions is lower than for other types of biomass. However, the comparatively lower GHG emission reductions are largely based on the specific life cycle analysis standards set out in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). Infrastructure and logistics are well developed for starch plants.

The main disadvantages, as in the case of sugar plants, are the impact on water, air and soil and on biodiversity resulting from intensive agriculture.

Forest timber and SRC plantations – the greatest advantage of using wood as a raw material for the production of fermentable sugar is their low competition with arable land and thus the absence of Land Use Change (LUC) or Indirect Land Use Change (iLUC). However, for SRC, this is only the case if they are not cultivated on arable land. In the case of wood, infrastructure and logistics are well developed; for SRC, this is less the case. The reduction in GHG emissions is in the same range as for sugar plants, but the GHG abatement costs are much higher.

The main disadvantages in this area are the extremely low productivity per unit area and the lack of by-products for the feed market.

Waste and residual materials – the main strength of the use of waste and residual materials for the production of fermentable sugar lies in the highest reduction of GHG emissions of all compared groups – partly again due to the special life cycle assessment standards applied in the RED – and in the lowest impact on biodiversity, water, air and soil.

The main disadvantages are high GHG abatement costs, poorly developed infrastructure and logistics, low traceability and, above all, limited availability.

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