Biomass: supporting greater climate ambitions without sacrificing sustainability

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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As Europe’s largest single source of renewable energy, sustainable biomass is a cornerstone of the EU’s low-carbon energy transition. Seeking to accelerate this transition, the European Commission has proposed a series of ambitious new goals to  achieve by the end of the decade, including:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 1990 levels
  • Decreasing consumption of coal by 70% and gas by 25% from 2015 levels
  • Increasing the share of renewable energy to 38-40%

The Commission’s plan calls for an increase in the use of sustainable biomass, recognising that the EU will need more sustainable biomass to balance the grid and support a massive expansion of intermittent renewables like wind and solar.

But is it feasible to ramp up biomass production without over-taxing our forests or sacrificing sustainability standards?

It is, and the US Southeast provides a strong example of the way forward. This heavily-forested region exported nearly 7 million metric tons of sustainable biomass to the EU and UK in 2019, and has the capacity to sustainably increase its production to 35 million metric tons.

Here are five principles to help understand what constitutes sustainable biomass, how it supports forest growth in the US Southeast, and can contribute to achieving the Commission’s climate goals.

1. Sustainable biomass is sourced from forests where forest inventory and carbon stocks are stable or increasing

Steady increases in forest inventory mean emissions from biomass are quickly sequestered by the continually growing forest landscape from which it is sourced.

 

2. In the US, sustainable biomass represents a tiny fraction of the forest products industry

Each year, only 4% of the forest is harvested in this region leaving the remaining 96% to keep growing. Of that 4% that is harvested, just 3% is used for biomass.

 

3. Forests tracts in the US Southeast are not clear-cut exclusively for biomass

Wood from a single tract of land typically supplies multiple markets, including sawmills, solid wood products, pulp and paper, and bioenergy, among others.

 

4. Sustainable biomass is produced from low-value wood that is created as a by-product of a traditional timber harvest

Forest tracts are typically managed for high-value sawtimber, which generate the most revenue for landowners. Some trees that do not meet the specifications for sawtimber are cascaded for use as biomass, which is in keeping with the principle of using wood fiber for its greatest climate benefit.

 

5. Biomass is a small market, but helps forest owners keep planting trees

Private citizens own 86% of the forestland in the US Southeast. Strong demand for forest products, like biomass, incentivize landowners to continue the cycle of planting and harvesting, versus converting their forestland to other, more lucrative uses. This demand helps landowners preserve and manage their forest to promote wildlife and biodiversity in the region.

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