‘Win-win or lose-lose’: EU scientists highlight two-faced bioenergy policies

According to the report, 49% of wood-based bioenergy production in Europe is based on secondary biomass such as by-products from the wood industry, which are considered the most sustainable. [Statkraft / Flickr]

Around 14% of bioenergy used in Europe is of unknown origin, according to an EU report, which highlights the need to improve the tracing of wood burned for electricity production.

The report by the European Commission’s in-house research centre also uncovered a 20% gap between the reported use of biomass in sectors like furniture or construction and other reported uses.

This gap “can be almost entirely attributed to energy use,” said the EU’s Joint Research Centre, based in Ispra, Italy.

The report, published on 26 January, highlights both “win-win” forest management practices but also “lose-lose” situations where bioenergy exacerbates climate change and damages forest ecosystems.

According to the report, 49% of wood-based bioenergy production in Europe is based on secondary biomass such as by-products from the wood industry, which are considered the most sustainable. 20% comes from low-value stemwood, including stems from coppice forests, while 17% comes from treetops and branches, both of which are also seen as environmentally-friendly.

The remaining 14%, however, was of unknown origin.

“It is of utmost importance to improve the availability and quality of data regarding the forest-based sector economy, and the energy use of wood in particular,” said Ragnar Jonsson, the lead researcher behind the study.

But with numerous reporting systems in place at the national level, available data across Europe is difficult to compare, Jonsson said, calling for improved monitoring of forests, notably via satellite observation.

Environmental activists were quick to point the finger at the EU’s bioenergy policies, saying the burning of wood for electricity production should no longer be considered as neutral from a climate perspective.

Scientists call on EU to 'correct' biomass carbon accounting rules

Europe’s academies of science have called on EU lawmakers to introduce a “radically new standard” in the bloc’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to ensure net carbon emissions from biomass power stations are “properly accounted for and declared”.

The Commission report concludes that “most forest biomass produces more greenhouse gas emissions than coal, oil and gas,” said WWF, the global conservation organisation.

Activists pointed to findings of the report showing that biomass burning emits more than 350 million tonnes of CO2 per year in the EU, which is more than the carbon pollution from fossil fuels per unit of energy.

According to the WWF, biomass had a negative impact on climate, biodiversity, or both in 23 out of the 24 scenarios analysed in the JRC report.

“If we want to meet the climate targets for 2030 and 2050, we must reduce emissions within the next 10 years, not increase carbon pollution by burning wood for energy. The EU needs to reform its biomass policies as quickly as possible,” said Dr Louise Vet, former director of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW).

However, the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) refrained from suggesting tougher bioenergy policies at the EU level. While some scientists have called on the European Union to stop considering bioenergy as carbon-neutral, the JRC report said this was a decision left to the member states.

“The assumption of ‘carbon neutrality’ of wood bioenergy does not apply to the EU when the whole EU climate and energy framework is considered because the carbon impact of any change in forest management or wood use is reflected in each country’s climate accounts,” explains Giacomo Grassi, the JRC’s leading expert on Europe’s climate legislation.

“The risk of excessive use of wood by bioenergy operators, leading to forest accounting debits and the need of additional emissions reduction in other sectors, may be managed at member states level through balanced national policies and incentives,” Giacomo said.

Review in 2026

The Commission itself remained vague as to how it intends to follow up on the study, saying the JRC research “will be a valuable contribution to the Commission’s ongoing review of the Renewable Energy Directive” and other climate laws that are coming up for revision in June.

The EU’s renewable energy directive “already includes strengthened sustainability criteria covering not only biofuels but also biomass for heat and power,” the Commission spokesperson remarked, adding the legislation has to be implemented by member states “at the latest by June 2021”.

These criteria “will considerably strengthen the legislative framework in place to ensure the sustainable production and use of bioenergy,” the spokesperson continued, pointing out that a review of these criteria is due “in 2026” under the directive.

“This does not pre-judge the right of initiative of the Commission, if additional EU action is needed earlier,” the spokesperson added, however.

EU climate plan blows hot and cold on forestry, biomass

While recognising the positive role of forests in mitigating global warming, the European Commission has riled the agroforestry and biomass industries by stating its intention of limiting growth in the sector.

In the meantime, the EU executive will table “operational guidance” for national governments on how to apply the directive’s forest biomass sustainability criteria. A so-called implementing act will be tabled in the first quarter of 2021, with a view “to ensure a harmonised and robust implementation” of the new rules, the spokesperson told EURACTIV.

For environmental activists, however, this falls way short of what is needed.

“The Commission is shirking its responsibility. It basically admits in this report that EU bioenergy policies are accelerating climate change, then lobs the ball into the court of member states to fix the problem. We urgently need biomass rules to be tightened in the EU Renewable Energy Directive before any more damage is done,” said Alex Mason from the WWF’s European Policy Office.

The bioenergy industry, for its part, has urged the EU executive to focus on the enforcement of the existing renewable energy directive, which was last amended in 2018 and has not yet fully been implemented at the national level.

“The study underlines that a swift and robust implementation of [the directive’s] sustainability criteria will effectively minimise negative impacts associated with the use of woody biomass for energy,” said Bioenergy Europe, a trade association.

Outside Europe, the US pellet producers association (USIPA) drew attention to forestry certification schemes such as the Sustainable Biomass Program, saying the EU’s union-wide sustainability criteria “will underpin the sustainability of all biomass used in the EU,” including wood pellets imported from abroad.

Sustainability risks caused by bioenergy use “are currently mitigated through various independent globally recognised certifications, including SBP,” USIPA said, adding those risks will be further mitigated with the implementation of the directive’s sustainability criteria later this year.

Meanwhile, the European Commission launched an online public consultation on the development of a new EU Forest Strategy, which will be formally adopted later this year.

In a statement, the Commission said the strategy will “aim at ensuring healthy and resilient forests that contribute significantly to biodiversity and climate goals,” building on the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030, presented in May last year.

The public consultation is open until 19 April 2021.

“To reach climate neutrality and reverse biodiversity loss, we need to protect and restore forests everywhere, including in the EU,” said Frans Timmermans, the EU’s climate chief. “Our forests now are in a dire state and we must take urgent action to reverse the decline,” he said.

Brussels bares teeth with launch of new biodiversity plan

The European Commission is getting tough on biodiversity with a new set of “nature restoration targets” announced for publication next year, which the EU executive says will be strictly enforced.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters