Scientists call on EU to ‘correct’ biomass carbon accounting rules

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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 ETS is the EU’s flagship tool for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and obliges power generators, industrial emitters as well as airlines to buy CO2 permits on the market to cover some of the pollution they emit.

But although the ETS currently assumes that all biomass is carbon neutral, Europe’s academies of science say this is mostly not the case.

“Much of the biomass employed in Europe is anything but carbon neutral,” writes professor Michael Norton, environment programme director at the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC).

“Today’s carbon accounting rules under the ETS that allow biomass stack emissions to be ignored, give forest biomass a free ride – despite its massive climate effects,” he explains.

“From a scientific standpoint, not correcting this mistake is climate hypocrisy,” Norton said in a statement published on Wednesday (26 August).

EASAC represents the consensus among national science academies in the 28 EU member states, plus Norway and Switzerland, giving its opinions considerable authority among the scientific community.

The statement accompanies the scientists’ response to a public consultation by the European Commission on monitoring and reporting rules under the ETS, which are due to be updated before the next trading period starts in 2021.

Today, carbon emissions from biomass power plants are considered to be zero under the ETS, because it is assumed that emissions from burning biomass – if compliant with EU guidelines – are eventually compensated for by newly planted trees.

But EASAC believes that does not properly reflect the effect biomass plants have on climate change, saying this is true even when biomass replaces coal-fired power generation, the most polluting of all energy sources.

“EASAC’s and many other scientists’ work has shown that swapping coal with biomass in power stations often does not reduce, but increases net emissions to the atmosphere, when the whole life cycle is properly accounted for,” the group said in a statement.

“It should not be possible to just assume that millions of tons of carbon coming out of a power station stack are ‘zero’,” it adds.

The authors argue for introducing a new criteria, based on the time it takes for trees or crops to absorb enough CO2 from the atmosphere to make up for the emissions of the entire biomass supply chain – the “carbon payback period”.

“Regulators need to know how long it will take until the initial perverse effects of biomass on climate are overcome and net reductions in atmospheric CO2 concentrations achieved,” EASAC says.

According to EASAC, policymakers should define “acceptable” payback times that are compatible with the internationally agreed targets of the Paris Agreement in order to “keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels; and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 °C.”

“Since recent estimates are that 1.5°C may be exceeded in 10-20 years, an acceptable payback period should be no longer than 5 to 10 years,” Norton said.

The Dutch have decided: Burning biomass is not sustainable

The Netherlands should phase out the use of biomass for generating electricity as soon as possible, the advisory board of the Dutch government said in a report presented earlier this month.

Industry critique on EASAC methodology

But not everyone believes that introducing such criteria is necessary because bioenergy is already subject to an extensive set of sustainability rules under the EU’s renewable energy directive.

The ETS “requires that biomass complies with the Renewable Energy Directive Sustainability criteria to be considered carbon neutral,” said Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general at Bioenergy Europe, a trade association.

“And if we look back at the renewable energy directive there are clear and stringent criteria that ensure biomass is sourced sustainably, that forest carbon stock is maintained and therefore bioenergy is part of a long-term neutral carbon cycle,” Jossart added in emailed comments to EURACTIV.

According to Jossart, the EASAC position paper is “based on a flawed methodology that takes into consideration the plot level instead of the landscape level, as recommended by the IEA and many scientists.”

“When forest landscape is taken in consideration, and the annual harvest does not exceed the annual growth of forest, there is no net reduction in forest carbon stock,” he explained.

That point was echoed by IEA Bioenergy, an international bioenergy collaboration under the auspices of the International Energy Agency. In a written response to EASAC, it said the climate effects of woody biomass “should be considered at the estate/landscape rather than plot level”. As a consequence, “the time gap between harvest and regrowth of a single stand as defined in the Norton paper is less relevant,” it said.

In addition, changing the rules now would only hamper the EU’s progress on decarbonisation, and cement the position of fossil fuels as the preferred energy source in areas like transport, heating and industry, Jossart argued.

“EU member states, as shown in their National Energy and Climate plans, rely on efficient and sustainable bioenergy to decarbonise their energy mix,” Jossart pointed out.

Impact on Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and Britain

If EASAC’s proposals are implemented, it could indeed significantly affect European countries’ performance in climate rankings, the scientists said.

“I’d expect this to have an impact on how we look on countries like Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, the UK, and others who use a lot of biomass” who are considered as climate leaders, Norton stated.

“This places challenges for such countries to reach their renewable energy targets with less climate-damaging biomass,” Norton acknowledges. However, he believes “much more would be achieved in tackling climate change if the huge subsidies currently given to biomass could be diverted to technologies that really helped the climate.”

Changes to the EU’s carbon accounting rules would also have broader implications internationally. If other countries and regions do not follow suit, biomass burned in Europe could be considered as more polluting than the same biomass burned elsewhere, which would be unfair to European players.

However, changing carbon accounting rules at international level could prove a lengthy process because of the current scenarios used by the United Nations. “All International Panel on Climate Change scenarios reaching climate-neutrality by 2050 include sustainable biomass,” Jossart remarked.

EU plans sweeping bioenergy review by end 2020

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).

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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