Anaerobic digestion is a well known process that (while still capable of showing new features) has experienced several waves of technological development. It was “born” as a wastewater treatment system, in the 1970s showed promise as an alternative energy source (in particular from animal waste), in the 1980s and later it became a standard for treating organic-matter-rich industrial wastewater, and more recently returned to the market for its energy recovery potential, making use of different biomasses, including energy crops. With the growing concern around global warming, this paper looks at the potential of anaerobic digestion in terms of reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The potential contribution of anaerobic digestion to GHG reduction has been computed for the 27 EU countries on the basis of their 2005 Kyoto declarations and using life cycle data. The theoretical potential contribution of anaerobic digestion to Kyoto and EU post-Kyoto targets has been calculated. Two different possible biogas applications have been considered: electricity production from manure waste, and upgraded methane production for light goods vehicles (from landfill biogas and municipal and industrial wastewater treatment sludges). The useful heat that can be produced as by-product from biogas conversion into electricity has not been taken into consideration, as its real exploitation depends on local conditions. Moreover the amount of biogas already produced via dedicated anaerobic digestion processes has also not been included in the calculations. Therefore the overall gains achievable would be even higher than those reported here.

This exercise shows that biogas may considerably contribute to GHG emission reductions in particular if used as a biofuel. Results also show that its use as a biofuel may allow for true negative GHG emissions, showing a net advantage with respect to other biofuels. Considering also energy crops that will become available in the next few years as a result of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, this study shows that biogas has the potential of covering almost 50% of the 2020 biofuel target of 10% of all automotive transport fuels, without implying a change in land use. Moreover, considering the achievable GHG reductions, a very large carbon emission trading “value” could support the investment needs.

However, those results were obtained through a “qualitative” assessment. In order to produce robust data for decision makers, a quantitative sustainability assessment should be carried out, integrating different methodologies within a life cycle framework. The identification of the most appropriate policy for promoting the best set of options is then discussed.

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