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Environmental degradation: a strategic plan for the environment and energy

The Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies, in agreement with the Ministry of the Environment, presented an extensive programme aiming at combining soil protection, renewable energy sources and employment. The recent disaster in Sardinia show the nedd and urgency of an organic intervention

by Matteo Monni
december 2013 | Back

Machinery World put several times the focus on bioenergy, giving Itabia (Italian Biomass Association) the chance to highlight the environmental degradation menacing Italy and to illustrate the possible solutions to be taken, such as interventions of urgent and enduring prevention. The preventive works must necessarily take into consideration several factors such as: overbuilding and abandonment of rural areas, woods and rivers maintenance, the current economic crisis and the persistent lack of soil governance. These aspects altogether concern to some extent the biomass supply chains and may have positive effects on climate (temperatures and rains) – through the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions – and at a local level, because soil and resources are strongly linked.
Once again we coped with a flood that this time stroke, with a ravaging strength, Sardinia, a region already afflicted by heavy social and economic difficulties. In other periods similar catastrophes happened in Veneto, Liguria, Tuscany, Calabria and Sicily striking, without any exception, the whole peninsula. Why are we worrying about the emergencies without trying to prevent them?
It should be time to recognise that for some problems the state of emergency has become chronic. The alarm level must be kept high for ordinary maintenance and not "put aside" until the fatal upcoming natural disaster. In sign of respect for the sixteen victims of the storms in Sardinia the Parliament dedicated one minute of silence, but it is hard to tolerate years of deafening silence and apathy shown by the administrators who did not take the appropriate measures to avoid the worst. The closeness of the country's institutions to the population would be better perceived if there were a strategic long-term and systematic programming.
The ordinary people ignore that, according to a recent survey by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies, in the last 40 years the Surface Used for Agriculture (SAU) decreased of 5 million hectares (-28%) due to the farmers' abandonment of rural areas. This process had two consequences on the environment: the overbuilding in rural areas and the lack of maintenance of hilly and alpine areas. In parallel with SAU reduction, and partly as its direct consequence, forest extension redoubled in 40 years, from 5,5 to almost 11 million hectares. This increase was not a result of a far-sighted administration. A consistent part of the Italian woods is, as a matter of fact, a result of the spontaneous forest growth in areas with no more agropastoral activities. As a consequence, the maintenance of soil productivity and forest protection decreased (an example being the firewood or the wood for energy purpose). This process had serious implications for the environment. The environmental degradation is due both to physical parameters – such as geology and morphology – and to the lack of soil governance.
Cause and effect of this dynamics are well known and studied, and this is the reason why the Italian Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture jointly developed the "Guidelines for the evaluation of environmental degradation and its reduction through measures and interventions in agro-forestry". In this document the cost to be sustained by the community was also illustrated in terms of loss of human lives due to natural disasters (such as floods, fires and landslides). This could be prevented with appropriate maintenance and safety interventions. Among these interventions, the focus is on the management of biomass for energy production.
This document put the focus on the new job opportunities given by fragile lands restoration and maintenance. These new jobs would create, according to a reliable evaluation, about 410 million work hours in the next 10 years, corresponding to 19,000 new jobs a year, in areas otherwise destined to depopulation and loss of cultural identity. The lack of preventive interventions burdened for years on state coffers and contributors, with 10 billion euros spent for the protection of civilians, emergency measures for agriculture and other efforts by the municipal administrations. Given that the agro-forestry sector concerns almost the 75% of Italy, it is essential to have a strategic long-term and systematic planning.
Starting from these premises and taking into consideration the binding targets for energy production from renewable sources, the MiPAAF (The Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies) entrusted ITABIA, ENEA, CRA (the Agricultural Research Council) and Chimica Verde Bionet with developing the Bioenergy Sector Plan. The draft was illustrated on 6 November to the Under-Secretary (with Bioenergy portfolio) Giuseppe Castiglione and in the presence of the Agricultural Confederations (CIA, Coldiretti, Confagricoltura and Copagri), in order to start up a cooperation and complete the plan's final version. Key goal of the plan is to set strategic guidelines for a sustainable development in the bioenergy sector by coordinating the measures already started by the Ministry and directing the local administrations towards virtuous supply chains. These supply chains must form an integral part of the local communities. The focus is on promoting good management, technical practices and regulations, as well as developing current and future research.
In addition, the bioenergetic supply chains are considered under the perspective of the National Energy Strategy (SEN, March 2013), that highlighted challenges and goals such as: energy efficiency; gas market; sustainable development of renewable energies; infrastructures and electricity market; renovation of the oil refining industry and the fuel distribution network; sustainable production of hydrocarbons and governance modernization. The plan's guidelines are in line with the four goals highlighted by the SEN, all of which are of the MiPAAF competence: reduction of energy costs; respect of the environmental targets set by the European Climate and Energy Package 2020; reduction of energy dependence from abroad; economy promotion through the FER (Renewable Energy Sources) for the agricultural sector, animal husbandry and forestry. The development of the bioenergy supply chains can contribute to the implementation of these priorities.
Through this approach are highlighted goals and strategies of the Bioenergy Sector Plan and a central role is given to the whole agricultural sector in the Italian energy scenario. The necessary parameters – such as operative structures and priority actions – will direct the Ministry towards a medium and long-term period strategy aimed at increasing bioenergy and green chemistry in accordance with the comunitarian, national and regional policies for the environmental safeguard and decarbonization of the economy. It is necessary therefore, to ensure an effective cooperation within the relevant Ministries and the Conferenza Stato Regioni (the Permanent State-Regions Conference) and create an office devoted to bioenergies within the MiPAAF, supported by a scientific and technical board. Other goals are the promotion of research and innovation in the bioenergy sector for the whole supply chain and a training programme at national level in cooperation with the Regions. Among the supply chains are: solid biomass, biogas and biomethane, bioliquids and green chemistry. For each of them a framework was arranged to put together and compare strong and weak points as well as opportunities and risks.
In conclusion, the promotion and development of the bioenergy supply chains cannot leave aside a detailed work of information and education within local administrations and agricultural businesses, with the goal to get acquainted with environmental benefits and opportunities offered by these supply chains and at the same time to prevent negative reactions by public opinion towards these new initiatives (NIMBY - "Not in my back yard" Syndrome).

The approval of the Bioenergy Supply Chain Plan will take place during the Permanent State-Regions Conference with the participation of the independent provinces of Trento and Bolzano and matters such as duration, renewal and adaptation of the plan will be decided. The MiPAAF is responsible for the implementation of the plan in cooperation with the board of bioenergy suppliers and in accordance with other plans (concerning wood, innovation and research). The MiPAAF will be also responsible for a control room with the Ministry of the Environment, Land and Sea and the Ministry for the Economic Development.
If the Bioenergy Sector Plan was turned into concrete actions, Italy would have an excellent instrument to relaunch the economy in a sustainable perspective and to export a reliable model of green-economy made in Italy.

Research and innovation are elements of huge importance in the process of bioenergy consolidation and the following topics have to be considered:
Improvement in the quality of vegetable materials
Innovation of productive cycles
Simplification of cultivation techniques
Improvement in resource management
Development of rural areas
Promotion of rural areas
Raw materials and energy transformation
Technical and economic analysis
Lifecycle of bioenergy supply chains


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