Biomass Action Plan

This article is part of our special report Rural Energy.

Bioenergies are derived from wood, waste and agricultural crops for transport uses (biofuels). Currently, the EU meets about 4% of its energy needs from biomass. The main objective of the Biomass Action Plan, put forward in December 2005, is to double this share by 2010. The plan would reduce oil imports by 8%, prevent greenhouse gas emissions worth 209 million tons CO2-equivalent per year and create up to 300,000 new jobs in the agricultural and forestry sector.

The Commission sees multiple benefits from doubling the share of biomass energy:

  • the share of fossil fuels in the EU's energy mix would decrease from 80% to 75% and 8% less crude oil would have to be imported. This would also have a beneficial effect on oil prices;
  • greenhouse gas emissions would be 209 million tons CO2-equivalent lower per year;
  • 250.000 to 300.000 jobs could be created in the agriculture and forestry sector.

Three EU member states (the NetherlandsGermany and the UK) already have or are preparing national biomass action plans.

The plan outlines 31 measures to promote biomass in heating and coolingelectricity production and transport (biofuels). Main actions proposed include:

  • new EU legislation on the use of renewable energy, including biomass for heating and cooling (due in 2006);
  • a possible revision of the biofuels directive (2006) which might set national targets for the share of biofuels and would oblige fuel suppliers to use biofuels;
  • member states national biomass action plans;
  • developing an industry-led research agenda with the launch of a "biofuel technology platform";
  • research into second-generation biofuels to power vehicle engines (biomass-to-Liquids - BTL).

The Commission evaluates the direct costs of the plan at around 9 billion euros per year. This is equivalent to an increase of about 1.5 eurocents per litre of petrol and 0.1 eurocents per kWh of electricity, according to the Commission.

However, the picture is not entirely rosy. Increasing the use of biomass energy poses several challenges and faces quite a number of important obstacles of different kinds.

  • economic:

    • energy from biomass is still, in general, more expensive than fossil fuels, even with oil at $70 a barrel; more technology research and development will be needed to maximise the energy output and efficiency of biomass technologies;
    • as the report itself indicates, there is reluctance among major energy and fuel suppliers as well as car and boiler manufacturers;
    • increased biocrops production could increase competition for agricultural land and enter in conflict with food production. According to some critics, this could even lead to more hunger in the developing world;
  • environmental:
    • although scientific studies indicate that the use of biomass is "carbon neutral", not all scientists agree. Some studies even show that conversion of natural ecosystems to energy plantations might result in more carbon emissions from the soil because of the accelerated decay of organic matter. 
    • large-scale bio-energy production could have a negative impact on biodiversity, soil, water use and supply
    • large-scale production of energy crops requires increased land use which could lead to further destruction of tropical rainforest in producing countries countries like Brasil
  • public acceptance:
    • consumers do not change behaviour quickly and may look at new technologies with scepticism, especially if they come at a high price

EU agriculture ministers welcomed the Commission's biomass and biofuels strategy but also expressed concerns about agricultural production. Some governments want to restrict the imports of biofuels (esp. ethanol) from countries such as Brazil and encourage domestic production of biofuels instead (esp. biodiesel, where the EU is already world leader).

At a meeting on 8 June 2006, EU energy ministers said the EU's biomass and biofuels strategy should focus on R&D aspects (second generation biofuels, bio-refineries, efficient boiler technologies, etc.) and on ensuring the smooth functioning of markets at EU and global level. But they insisted on leaving EU member states free to determine their own policy approach and to choose the sectors in which biomass is used: heating, cooling, transport biofuels or electricity generation. The ministers also invited the Commission to:

  • review waste legislation to "further encourage the use of biomass and clean waste as fuel", and;
  • "review the animal by-products legislation with a view to encouraging the use of farming and food processing by-products as a renewable energy source".

On the same day, the Commission launched a Biofuels Technology Platform to coordinate biofuels and biomass research and development policy. Led by industry, the platform is expected to produce a European strategy for producing biofuels that are compatible with present-day infrastructures, in particular for transport applications. A "vision paper for 2030 and beyond" was presented at the launch conference which will form the basis of a forthcoming strategy.

The oil industry, through its European association Europia, said it acknowleges the advantages offered by biomass such as reduced import depency and lower CO2 emissions. But it warned about food and energy price increases that it says will result from biofuels support policies. "The costs of today’s biofuels exceed significantly those of the conventional fuels they are expected to replace. As a consequence introduction of biofuels will cause the EU energy bill as well as food prices to increase," Europia said. In addition, it said the EU would not be able to produce enough biofuels to meet its 2010 target. "Therefore, any further ambitions will require unrestricted access to imports," it said.

Europia sees heat and power generation as the areas where biomass offer the most promising prospects. "Any regulatory follow-up to the Biomass Action Plan should give priority to these applications," it argues.

Josef Auer, an analyst at Deutsche Bank Research, describes bioenergies as "the all-rounders among the renewables, since only biomass is equally suitable for the generation of electricity and heat as well as the production of fuels". He says the prospects of bioenergies are especially positive in the heat market, where they already contribute more than 90% to Germany's heat provision coming from renewable energies.

Environmental groups WWF, Greenpeace, BirdLife and the EEB warned the Commission to ensure that the biomass action plan "include adequate environmental and social safeguards". "If managed sustainably, bioenergy can help us to cut greenhouse gas emissions and restore degraded land," said Ariel Brunner, BirdLife's Agriculture Policy Officer. "However, poorly managed production does little to reduce emissions and can have a devastating impact on the environment."

  • 8 June 2006: Council adopts conclusions on biomass
  • 14 Dec. 2006: Parliament adopts own-initiative report by German MEP Werner Langen (PPE-DE)
  • 1 Jan. 2007: EU extends biofuels support scheme to the ten member states that joined in 2004. Under the scheme, farmers are paid a €45  premium for each hectare of land used for biofuels production.
  • 10 Jan. 2007: Commission presents 'climate change and energy package' (EURACTIV 10/01/07)
  • 9 March 2007: EU summit endorses key points contained in the package, including:
    • 20% renewable energy target for 2020
    • 10% biofuels target by 2020

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