The European Green Deal will unlock the true potential of bioenergy – if we take the right decisions now

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

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Christian Rakos. [World Bioenergy Association]

Despite the considerable challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, the European Commission continues to push ahead on the implementation of its ambitious European Green Deal agenda. Its latest proposals include a new 2030 Biodiversity Strategy and, most recently, the ambitious Energy System Integration Strategy. The momentum will continue after the summer break, when the Commission will present its 2030 Climate Target plan, explaining how it intends to increase ambition and raise 2030 emissions reduction targets.

Christian Rakos is the President of the World Bioenergy Association and the executive director of the Austrian Pellet Industry Association proPellets Austria.

At the same time, the European Parliament is also working on various reports and resolutions that will set the course for how forests – both within and outside Europe – can be sustainably managed and contribute to the global fight against climate change.

Next June, many of these initiatives will culminate in a set of comprehensive legislative proposals unveiled by the European Commission. Until then it is crucial that the EU acknowledges and uses all available instruments and technologies in its toolbox to fight climate change. This is especially important for sustainable biomass.

In the new 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, the Commission recognised sustainable bioenergy as an important tool to fight climate change, identifying it as a priority along wind and solar. The Energy System Integration Strategy includes a separate chapter on unlocking the potential of renewable fuels produced from sustainable biomass and acknowledges biomass as an enabler of carbon capture, storage and use that can lead to “deep decarbonization.”

At a national level, policy makers are also trying to establish their own approach to making the green transition work. Take as an example the heated debate in Germany over when and how to phase out coal, or in the Netherlands, where the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER) has advised the Dutch government that the use of woody biomass is, and will continue to be, an important transition fuel and feedstock. Indeed, according to the SER report, woody biomass is necessary to reach the objectives of the Dutch climate agreement.

It is worth recalling the evidence that backs these decisions. The international science community and the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognize the value of sustainable forestry in addressing climate change and of biomass as a renewable fuel. Consequently, every IPCC scenario on how to reach climate-neutrality by 2050 includes biomass. Scientific research has demonstrated that the carbon intensity of electricity produced from woody biomass is up to 85% lower than that of coal-based electricity. Beyond those immediate benefits, combining bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) also delivers long-term solutions, in the form of negative emissions.

However, we must of course make sure that the bioenergy we use is produced sustainably. In Austria, my home country, 300.000 jobs are related to the forest industry. We use wood firstly for timber production, which allows us to produce sustainable building products that store carbon for many decades. The primary market for lower value wood such as thinnings or chips from sawmills is for pulp and paper production. Anything that is left, alongside wood that has no industrial use such as certain species or residues including tops, branches or sawdust, may be used to provide energy, predominantly for heat and to a lesser degree for power production. The same market patterns also govern the way forests are managed across the Atlantic in the US Southeast, a major global supplier of wood and wood products, where the forest area has grown 40% in the last 25 years.

In this way, the market for low quality wood provides forest owners an additional income stream and another reason to continue planting trees, and the more this forest industry prospers the more forests will grow. It is up to European legislators and decisionmakers to ensure this virtuous circle can continue in a sustainable way.

At the World Biomass Association, our members are convinced that deforestation is an important issue to be addressed globally – and responsible biomass producers are acting accordingly. There are for example, agreements in place to protect sensitive areas and enhance biodiversity, and conservation alliances with leading NGOs. Independent, comprehensive certification schemes such as the Sustainable Biomass Programme ensure that imported woody biomass only comes from sustainably managed forests. Sectoral EU legislation needs to reflect such best practices.

To conclude: If done right, biomass has undeniable strengths that help us in fighting climate change. That is why it is so important to implement effective and efficient sustainability criteria to safeguard against deforestation. The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED2), agreed after lengthy political negotiations, establishes such sustainability criteria, effectively separating “good biomass” from “bad biomass”. It is important that the necessary implementing work continues on this pathway. Ensuring that the sustainability criteria under RED2 are fit for purpose and work in practice will be essential in meeting the ambitious climate change targets set out by the EU and national governments.

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