The Danish government and a majority coalition of eight parties have proposed stricter legal requirements for wood biomass used for heat and electricity in the country.
The agreed proposal will ensure biomass is produced sustainably, securing a climate-friendly transition from coal in the short run while other alternatives are being pursued in the long term.
“In the long run, we will need to use much less biomass. But in many cases we are not yet at a point where we have other alternatives to coal, which must be phased out as soon as possible,” said Dan Jørgensen, Danish Minister of Climate.
A review by the Dutch government, published earlier this summer, said that whilst biomass is “indispensable” for a circular economy, it must be phased out of electricity production as soon as possible.
“Imported biomass is a transitional fuel,” said Søren Egge Rasmussen, a lawmaker from the Red-Green Alliance in the Folketing, the Danish parliament. “It is not enough to have slightly higher requirements for imports than before. We must politically create a much better framework for geothermal and heat pumps, which must replace the imported biomass in our energy consumption.”
Biomass makes up 60% of all renewable energy in the EU and is the largest source of renewable energy in Denmark, where it has “largely replaced” coal in the electricity and heating sector, according to the government.
Crucially, the proposals say carbon stocks and carbon sinks in forests must not decline in the short and medium term. This is key for environmentalists, who argue that replanted trees take too long to grow and sequester the same amount of carbon as those they replace.
The proposal also aims at keeping emissions in the production chain at a low level, echoing wording in the renewable energy directive, which will have to be introduced by member states in 2021.
Biomass varies in its carbon footprint, depending where it is sourced and how it is produced. The proposal seeks to prohibit non-sustainable sources.
Not all biomass should “automatically be categorised as carbon neutral”, said Jennifer Jenkins, the chief sustainability officer at Enviva, a US-based company, who spoke at an online debate in July. According to her, biomass needs to be sourced from low-value wood residues or smaller trees from timber harvests rather than high-value trees that continue to sequester carbon when made into furniture or construction material.
The Danish proposal, which replaces a voluntary agreement, will ensure trees are legally felled and replanted and that natural areas are protected, with biodiversity taken into account. The protection of forests is also in the spotlight at EU level with the European Commission’s biodiversity strategy suggesting to protect 30% of forests and focusing on old-forests as a key area for sequestering carbon.
The proposals in Denmark are ahead of forthcoming EU legislation, including a widely-expected bioenergy review, due at the end of 2020, which will evaluate the “use of forest biomass for energy production”.
Lea Wermelin, Danish Minister of the Environment, said: “We are in the middle of a crisis for both climate and biodiversity. Deforestation and overexploitation of forests and nature both provide more global warming and destroy great natural values.
“Therefore, it is crucial that we now increase demands on the sustainability of the wood that is used in Denmark. We must take the lead, also when it comes to using wood biomass in a sustainable.”
In the future, the Danish government aims to have strict measures for imported biomass, which makes up just over half of the country’s usage.
The US Industrial Pellet Association welcomed the agreement, saying US producers can meet these requirements.
“Sustainability is paramount to ensuring biomass delivers tangible climate benefits while supporting healthy forests and protecting biodiversity,” said Seth Ginther, USIPA Executive Director. Forests in the US south east have been supplying EU countries with sustainable biomass for more than a decade, Ginther said, with EU member states importing nearly 6 million metric tons last year.
“We applaud Danish leadership for designing strict, yet workable, criteria that provides important sustainability guarantees, while securing the critical role of biomass in helping Denmark reduce emissions and reach its climate goals.”
(Edited by Frédéric Simon)