A sustainable alternative for contaminated and underutilized lands: the FORBIO Project


In January 2016, the Horizon 2020-funded project, FORBIO (Fostering Sustainable Feedstock Production for Advanced Biofuels on underutilized land in Europe), composed of a consortium of 12 partners, including FAO, used the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP) Sustainability Indicators as entry point to develop a user-friendly set of sustainability indicators. They were then used to assess the sustainability of using contaminated or underutilized land, to produce biofuels.

With a strong emphasis on the collection of site-specific data, the FORBIO Project has given stakeholders in Sardinia and other underutilized areas in Germany and Ukraine, a strategy for the market uptake of sustainable advanced bioenergy value chains.

“FORBIO is part of the solution in the ongoing discussion in the biomass field on competition for resources such as land and water for the production of food, feed, or fuel.”

Confirmed Dr Rainer Janssen, Managing Director Projects at WIP Renewable Energies and FORBIO Project Coordinator during an interview about the project.

Sardinia’s Sulcis region was once home to a mining and aluminium industry. The lead, cadmium, zinc and other heavy metals caused large areas of land to become heavily contaminated.

In Germany, the FORBIO project looked at former sewage irrigation fields on the outskirts of Berlin, as well as lignite mining reclamation sites in the State of Brandenburg. The former is classified as contaminated and food production is not allowed. The mining activities in Lusatia led to drastic changes of the landscape and soils. Raw, barren soils resulted from the excavation and washing activities carried out to extract mineral coal.

The Ivankiev Region of Ukraine is adjacent to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Here the soils are comparatively less productive compared to other parts of the Ukraine and have as a result been abandoned.

The FORBIO project demonstrated the potentially beneficial role that bioenergy crops, such as giant reed or smilo grass to produce bioethanol – a renewable fuel for the transport sector, could play in cleaning up contaminated soils, while supporting the local economy in Sardinia. In addition, social indicators suggested that up to 1 350 new jobs could be created.

In Ukraine, a favourable policy environment surrounding renewable energy exists, and the financial analysis carried out showed that economic sustainability is guaranteed by the presence of supportive policy measures.

Overall, the sustainability assessment in all three case study sites revealed the positive impact of most environmental as well as social indicators tested. The Greenhouse Gas footprint of second-generation ethanol produced on these lands, using specific feedstock, could even be half that of any traditional bioethanol production, provided that the enzymes to breakdown the biomass are produced on site.

There are however barriers to the market uptake of advanced biofuel value chains. Current policies on land tenure rights in Ukraine would for example mean that investors have difficulties in acquiring land to develop bioenergy value chains. In Germany, land use planning is regulated by complex statutes that result in a fragmented mosaic of land patches to grow energy crops on.

Additionally, the financial viability of advanced biofuels in most of Europe, is hindered by volatile international ethanol prices and by the lack of ad-hoc policies that accompany the transition towards more environmentally friendly biofuels.

 “The results of the FORBIO project confirm the paramount importance of a full sustainability assessment which encompasses all three pillars of sustainable development and FAO’s role to achieve this has been crucial”

Explained Dr Maria Michela Morese, FAO Project Coordinator for GBEP. She went on to describe

“…on the one hand it is fundamental to have a deep understanding of the crosscutting nature of many indicators and on the other hand it is necessary that these results are treated in a holistic manner to deliver a concrete strategy to countries for the development of sustainable bioenergy.”

The FORBIO project, which ended in December 2018, will continue under a newly funded Horizon 2020 project entitled BIOPLAT-EU. The project will promote and support the uptake of sustainable bioenergy projects in Marginal, Underutilized and Contaminated lands (MUC lands) through a web-based GIS platform so that the analyses proposed by FORBIO can be applied by users to a greater number of case study sites. The platform will include a user-friendly tool to assess the environmental, social and techno-economic sustainability of potential bioenergy production on MUC lands.

For more information on the development of the advanced biofuel value chains studied: