Sustainable intensification of crop residue exploitation for bioenergy: Opportunities and challenges

Glob Change Biol Bioenergy. 2020 Jan;12(1):71-89. doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12649. Epub 2019 Oct 31.


Crop residue exploitation for bioenergy can play an important role in climate change mitigation without jeopardizing food security, but it may be constrained by impacts on soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks, and market, logistic and conversion challenges. We explore opportunities to increase bioenergy potentials from residues while reducing environmental impacts, in line with sustainable intensification. Using the case study of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, we employ a spatiotemporally explicit approach combined with stakeholder interviews. First, the interviews identify agronomic and environmental impacts due to the potential reduction in SOC as the most critical challenge associated with enhanced crop residue exploitation. Market and technological challenges and competition with other residue uses are also identified as significant barriers. Second, with the use of agroecosystem modelling and estimations of bioenergy potentials and greenhouse gas emissions till mid-century, we evaluate the ability of agricultural management to tackle the identified agronomic and environmental challenges. Integrated site-specific management based on (a) humus balancing, (b) optimized fertilization and (c) winter soil cover performs better than our reference scenario with respect to all investigated variables. At the regional level, we estimate (a) a 5% increase in technical residue potentials and displaced emissions from substituting fossil fuels by bioethanol, (b) an 8% decrease in SOC losses and associated emissions, (c) an 18% decrease in nitrous oxide emissions, (d) a 37% decrease in mineral fertilizer requirements and emissions from their production and (e) a 16% decrease in nitrate leaching. Results are spatially variable and, despite improvements induced by management, limited amounts of crop residues are exploitable for bioenergy in areas prone to SOC decline. In order to sustainably intensify crop residue exploitation for bioenergy and reconcile climate change mitigation with other sustainability objectives, such as those on soil and water quality, residue management needs to be designed in an integrated and site-specific manner.

Keywords: agricultural management scenarios; agricultural residues; biomass; climate change mitigation; greenhouse gas emissions; soil organic carbon; spatially explicit modelling; stakeholders; sustainable agricultural intensification; technical residue potentials.