SPECIAL REPORT / Practically half of the EU’s renewable energy currently comes from wood and wood waste, according to the EU statistics office Eurostat, but a lack of sustainability criteria for measuring its environmental impact is stoking fears of a hidden carbon debt mountain.
The EU's Renewable Energy Directive set a binding goal to source 20% of the bloc's energy from renewable sources by 2020. This included a target to provide 10% of transport energy from renewable sources, including biofuels.
The directive included voluntary and contested sustainability criteria for biofuels for transport as well as bioliquids in electricity, heating and cooling.
Biomass, either solid or gaseous, is biological material that usually derives from forested wood, agricultural crops and residues, or from biodegradable waste such as municipal waste and sewage sludge.
In order to produce energy, it can be converted directly into heat or electricity or into biofuels or biogas.
According to the Eurostat statistics, on average, 49% of renewable energy in the EU 27 states came from wood and wood waste in 2010, and most EU states met the majority of their renewable energy obligations this way.
Forest products were most popular in the Baltics, accounting for 96% of Estonia’s renewable energy and 88% of Lithuania’s. At the other end of the table, Norway and Cyprus only used wood materials for 11% and 13% of their renewable energy needs respectively.
“The bad news behind these figures is that the carbon debt from much of this wood means that CO2 emissions in the real world will actually go up,” Faustine Defossez the bioenergy policy officer for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), told EurActiv.
EU states must source a fifth of their energy mix to renewables by 2020 and because wood is cheap, easily accessible and considered ‘carbon neutral’, it is quite literally a ‘low hanging fruit’.
But an increasing body of environmental science views the ‘carbon neutral’ tag as mistaken, because of a lack of common criteria to enforce sustainable practices such as cascade use.
Cascading involves the energy use of wood at the end of its life cycle, in the form of woodland wastes and residues, or byproducts such as furniture, panels and paper, 70.4% of which is now recycled according to the European Recovered Paper Council.
If living wood is simply burned for energy, a temporary carbon debt can be created until CO2 emissions caused by the release of all the carbon it has absorbed, and the loss to the carbon sink, are compensated for by fully-grown replacement trees.
Climate scientists say that this time lag can run over many decades – sometimes centuries – causing environmental tipping points to be reached in the interim that render any expected eventual carbon savings moot.
Last month, EurActiv revealed that a leaked EU study had concluded that bioenegry production often increased short-term carbon emissions, for this reason.
That study has still not been released and, as rumours of textual modifications swirl, EurActiv understands that the EEB is considering suing Brussels for its release, even though it is itself funded by the European Commission and 13 EU member states.
As with the Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) dispute that paralysed EU biofuels policy for years, environmentalists believe that the carbon debt issue has the potential to ignite a biomass sustainability criteria row, because of what they call a ‘shoot first, aim later’ approach to policy making.
“Carbon debt is definitely the new ILUC,” Defossez said.
Fears are being raised that the same problem could take root on a wider scale, in the UN’s target to double the amount of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.
“There is a very high risk that if you are just driven by short term simplistic targets and blunt incentives that the environmental results are likely to be very damaging,” one EU official told EurActiv.
Despite their headline renewables target, UN officials contacted by EurActiv were uncertain whether sustainability criteria would be used for wood-based energy within SE4ALL, what they might be, or what percentage bioenergy would make up of the scheme.
“It’s a very sensitive question,” said Christophe Yvetot, the United Nations Industrial Development Office’s representative to the EU.
But a November 2011 Vision Statement by the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon made clear that biomass would have a role to play in meeting the SE4ALL targets.
“Countries with abundant biomass resources, like Sweden and Brazil, now get 50% of their energy from renewable resources,” he wrote approvingly. According to the new Eurostat figures, Sweden sources 57% of its renewable energy to wood and wood waste.
The problem with carbon accounting stems from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) counting of CO2 emissions from biomass burnt for energy as zero in the energy Sector, so long as the net CO2 emissions are logged in national agriculture and forestry inventories.
This method was set when it was assumed that the world would adopt the Kyoto Protocol. But only a very small sub-group of nations have Kyoto targets requiring such records to be kept, leaving a carbon accounting hole where wood imports are concerned.
Common criteria for registering land use emissions from biomass in Kyoto signatories are also considered problematic in many instances.
“The burning of wood is considered as zero emissions because international rules assume that these emissions are correctly accounted for when trees are cut,” Nuša Urbančič an expert at the green NGO, Transport and Environment told EurActiv.
“However, this is not the case in most countries. As long as this is not fixed, biomass has an unfair advantage compared to other truly low carbon renewables.”
Wood industry allies with environmentalists
Sections of the wood industry, losing out to biomass firms because of renewable targets, have begun to ally themselves with environmentalists, with whom they share a common interest.
"We as a wood industry are strongly for the cascade use principle,” said Filip De Jaeger, the secretary general of the European Confederation of Woodworking Industries. “We prefer raw materials to be used for panels and recycled at the end of their life cycle for energy purposes.”
Incentives for the use of biomass as a renewable were creating “fierce competition” for wood he said: “In many cases, the energy sector benefits from schemes to produce green certificates or green energy, which give them a higher buying power and create difficulties for panel mills that don’t have these additional support mechanisms.”
Brussels had been expected to propose new sustainability criteria for the use of biomass for energy this year, but the initiative was delayed and is now absent from next year’s workplans.
“The good news is that it is not too late to avoid another biofuels debacle if the Commission comes with new measures to address this,” Defossez said.
Many veterans of the EU’s biofuels battles though are not optimistic.
- 2020: Deadline for EU targets to be met, including a rise in the share of renewables in the regional energy mix to 20%
- 2030: Deadline for UN SE4ALL goals to be met, including a doubling of the share of renewables in the global eenrgy mix