The EU’s emissions reduction target for 2020 could be facing an unlikely but grave obstacle, according to a growing number of scientists, EU officials and NGOs: the contribution of biomass to the EU’s renewable energy objectives for 2020.
On 29 March, a call was launched at the European Parliament for Brussels to reconsider its carbon accounting rules for biomass emissions, and EURACTIV has learned that the issue is provoking widespread alarm in policy-making circles.
“We’re paying people to cut their forests down in the name of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and yet we are actually increasing them. No-one is apparently bothering to do any analysis about this,” one Brussels insider told EURACTIV.
“They’re just sleepwalking into this insanity,” he added.
Around half of the EU’s target for providing 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020 will be made up by biomass energy from sources such as wood, waste and agricultural crops and residues, according to EU member states’ national action plans.
Wood makes up the bulk of this target and is counted by the EU as ‘carbon neutral’, giving it access to subsidies, feed-in tariffs and electricity premiums at national level.
But because there is a time lag between the carbon debt that is created when a tree is cut down, transported and combusted – and the carbon credit that occurs when a new tree has grown to absorb as much carbon as the old one – biomass will increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations in the interim.
“It is wrong to assume that bio-energy is ‘carbon neutral’ by definition, it depends what you replace it with” Professor Detlef Sprinz, the Chairman of the independent Scientific Committee advising the European Environment Agency (EEA) told EURACTIV.
“If you replace a growing forest by energy crops under the current accounting rules of the EU, you may very well increase greenhouse gas emissions.”
An opinion of the EEA's Scientific Committee last September, argued that “legislation that encourages substitution of fossil fuels by bioenergy, irrespective of the biomass source, may even result in increased carbon emissions – thereby accelerating global warming.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also says that biomass can only be considered carbon neutral if all land use impacts have been considered first.
The EU is aware of the issue and a proposal that could impose binding criteria for biomass for energy production, delayed many times, had been expected later this year but may be delayed again.
Forest-rich Scandinavian countries oppose binding biomass criteria – Finland and Sweden produce 20% and 16% of their energy from biomass – while industrial interests tend to support criteria that ignore combustion emissions and carbon stock losses from burning wood.
Sustainability criteria are one climate area in which the US leads Europe. The Environmental Protection Agency there has already conducted a public consultation on how to account for emissions from biomass burning, and submitted a legislative proposal.
Several EU officials spoken to by EURACTIV expressed despair at the lack of enthusiasm for tougher accounting rules by the EU’s energy directorate, which holds the biomass portfolio.
“I don’t think they have any intention of considering the carbon emissions from wood combustion. They are not convinced that it’s an important enough issue,” one said.
Asked whether the current pattern of biomass production and use would prevent a 20% reduction of carbon emissions by 2020, he replied “the certainty is 100% because there is hardly any [wood-based] biomass that wouldn’t increase emissions. The question is for how long?”
There are no reliable accounting figures measuring the length of time that Europe will suffer a ‘carbon deficit’ caused by the use of biomass for energy, in particular harvesting timber for that.
But “the risk of having emissions for too long I think is very high,” the official said. “I see a very significant risk that we will increase emissions for several decades to come.”
There is consensus that when a carbon deficit extends beyond 30-50 years, it is no longer of use in the EU's present strategy to decarbonise Europe by 2050.
One report last month by the US-based Southern Environmental Law Center using woody biomass for a modelled expansion of power generation, found that it would take 35-50 years to provide an ongoing carbon reduction benefit.
Biomass from composted waste or agricultural residues is a highly efficient way of reducing carbon emissions, but critics say that the EU has vague and ill-conceived definitions of what constitutes residue in many cases.
It does not, for instance, take into account the impact that removing crop residues such as straw can have in depleting the soil's carbon stock, with resulting increases in fertiliser and irrigation use, and lower yields.
Equally, a felled tree instantly produces wood with a higher carbon footprint than coal because burning a 100-year-old tree will release all the carbon it has absorbed into the atmosphere, and it its replacement will take 100 years to reabsorb the same amount of carbon.
The EU’s current accounting rules do not distinguish between residues or woods used in this way, and more sustainable biomass, terming them both ‘carbon neutral’ without consideration of bio-recovery times .
“These calculations have just not been done,” an EU source told EURACTIV. “No one has looked at this in sufficient seriousness.”