The European Commission intends to push a “transformative approach” to all forms of bioenergy – including biofuels and woody biomass – as part of a biodiversity strategy due to be unveiled on Wednesday (20 May).
The EU executive is “continuously assessing” biomass supply and demand at EU and global level in order to “ensure that EU biomass-related policies are sustainable,” the Commission says in its draft strategy, seen by EURACTIV.
That process will culminate by end 2020 when “the Commission will publish the results of this work with regard to the sustainability of bioenergy,” the draft policy document says, adding the review will look “especially (into) the use of forest biomass for energy production.”
The Commission’s climate chief Frans Timmermans has made forest conservation and restoration one of the key aspects of the European Green Deal, which aims at reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.
That strategy is expected to focus on the conservation of old-growth forests, which are considered the most valuable – both for biodiversity and climate protection.
Primary and old-growth forests “are the richest forest ecosystems and keep removing carbon from the atmosphere, while storing significant carbon stocks, including in forest soils,” the Commission says in the draft biodiversity strategy.
The EU executive now wants to broaden the review to focus also on forest biomass.
Bioenergy is currently considered as a carbon-neutral renewable energy source under EU law. But this could change under updated EU rules.
“The use of whole trees, and food and feed crops, whether produced in the EU or imported, for energy production should be minimised,” the Commission says in the strategy, suggesting it no longer sees biomass as carbon neutral.
The Commission has grown wary of biomass energy ever since evidence emerged that EU imports of biofuels were contributing to deforestation outside of Europe and exacerbating climate change.
Two years ago, the EU decided to phase out palm oil imports completely by 2030 in a bid to slow deforestation in places like Indonesia. In 2015, it also decided to cap the amount of food crops that can be counted towards the EU’s renewable energy target for transport.
The EU’s biodiversity strategy won’t translate into hard legislation until 2021, when the Commission revises key EU laws, such as the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, and the Regulation on land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF).
Bioenergy sector jittery
Yet, the leaked policy document is already causing jitters in the bioenergy sector, which questioned the Commission’s aim to minimise the use of “whole trees” in energy production.
“The latter is an arbitrary definition: a restriction over the use of feedstock categories would not foster further sustainability or biodiversity conservation but would only complicate compliance,” said Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general of Bioenergy Europe, a trade association.
According to Jossart, wood market prices already guarantee an efficient allocation of forest resources, with the bioenergy sector purchasing whatever is left over by other sectors, including “low-value and otherwise unmarketable thinnings” such as treetops.
“High-quality wood, being unaffordable for the bioenergy sector, is used for high-value products such as buildings and furniture,” Jossart pointed out in a statement.
The bioenergy sector expressed relief earlier this month when the EU court of justice dismissed a legal challenge against the EU’s recognition of biomass as a renewable energy source.
Green activists filed the lawsuit last year, claiming that “the treatment of biomass as carbon neutral runs counter to scientific findings” showing that burning wood for energy typically emits 1.5 times more CO2 than coal and three times more than natural gas.
EU judges dismissed the case on 6 May, arguing the plaintiffs had failed to show how the directive was of “individual concern” to them.
Bioenergy consumption on the rise
The European Commission estimates that biomass currently represents almost 60% of renewable energy consumption in the EU, 96% of which is produced within Europe.
However, it says biomass for energy “must be produced, processed and used in a sustainable and efficient way in order to optimise greenhouse gas savings and maintain ecosystem services, all without causing deforestation or degradation of habitats or loss of biodiversity”.
But drawing a line between good and bad biomass is notoriously difficult.
Supporters of bioenergy say it enables repurposing existing coal-fired power plants with a renewable alternative that reduces the carbon intensity of electricity generation by up to 85% on a life-cycle basis.
In the US, the biomass industry says wood pellets are sourced from sustainably managed forests, which grew by 21% in volume since the beginning of the century in the US southeast region, absorbing carbon as they grow.
“Forest stocks have been increasing in the US Southeast because markets for wood products, like biomass, provide financial incentives for private landowners to keep investing in the continual cycle of thinning, harvesting and replanting trees,” said the US Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA).
“Creating markets for wood products leads to sustainable forests that allow biodiversity to thrive,” said Seth Ginther, executive director of USIPA.
The European Union attached sustainability criteria to the use of biomass in its last revision of the EU renewable energy directive, agreed two years ago. But environmental groups have warned about the discrepancy between the EU’s bioenergy policy and its long-term climate goals.
“The ever-increasing extraction and use of biomass for energy, and the dedicated use of land for biofuel or energy crops, runs directly counter to the EU’s climate objectives, and to its aim of protecting and restoring biodiverse ecosystems,” a group of environmental NGOs said in a joint statement issued on 14 May.
Last week, around 50 scientists have called for improving the way forest harvests and bioenergy are accounted for in the EU’s climate policy.
“It is important to recognise the relationship between forests and climate change,” the scientists wrote in a letter sent to the European Parliament on 15 May.
“The only means for removing atmospheric carbon dioxide at scale to achieve the stated EU climate goals in the coming decades is to protect the carbon stocks in remaining primary and older forests, and allow these and secondary forests to grow and restore their ecological potential for carbon storage and biological diversity, a mitigation strategy called Proforestation Management,” the scientists said.