Biomass policy under the spotlight as EU talks kick off

A coal and biomass fired power plant in Rotterdam, Netherlands. [Shutterstock]

The European Union’s proposed new biomass policy has enough built-in safeguards to ensure it doesn’t lead to additional carbon emissions, an EU official told a EURACTIV event last week, amid warnings that the policy risks making global warming worse by increasing deforestation.

As final talks to rewrite the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive kick off on Tuesday (27 February), campaigners are lining up their arguments in favour or against the use of biomass for heating and power generation.

“This is sometimes forgotten but biomass represents about 50% of renewable energy consumption in Europe,” said Giulio Volpi, an official at the European Commission’s energy directorate, who spoke at the EURACTIV event held on Thursday (22 February).

Volpi pointed to the new sustainability criteria included in the recast directive, saying they “introduced minimum safeguards” to ensure biomass consumed in Europe only comes from sustainably managed forests that take into account their capacity to suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Under the revised directive, biomass supply chains in the heat and power sector will have to emit 80% fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels – and up to 85% less as of 2026, Volpi pointed out.

And a third criterion applicable from 2021 requires that electricity produced from biomass can be eligible for public support “only if it applies efficient combined heat and power technology,” he said.

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Biomass policy “a disaster” for environmentalists

But those safeguards were dismissed as ineffective by Alex Mason, a senior renewable energy policy officer at WWF, the global conservation organisation.

When trees are burnt, they immediately release CO2 that took decades or sometimes centuries to absorb, Mason pointed out. And even if new trees are replanted after felling, it will still take decades for them to grow back and slowly recapture the CO2, he explained, warning that sustainable forest management cannot make any difference to that.

“This means that something that might well be sustainable in an ecological or commercial sense, and would be low carbon over a suitably long time period, will be counterproductive as a means of addressing climate change in the next ten or twenty years,” the WWF explained in a briefing paper.

And time is a luxury humans cannot afford, according to scientists who warn the window for taking action will soon close before global warming risks running out of control.

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“The proposal on forest biomass is – to put it bluntly – a disaster,” Mason warned, predicting “a policy U-turn on this, as there was for biofuels, in the relatively near future, once the impact becomes clearer”.

Mason is not alone in drawing attention to the risks of burning wood for energy. His warning is echoed by a group of prominent scientists, which includes Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a former vice chair of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, has also called on the EU to step up regulatory action against deforestation by tackling emissions of imported agricultural goods like beef, soy and palm oil.

While making climate targets harder to attain, the EU’s biomass policy will also shift the decarbonisation burden on other sectors of the economy such as transport and industry, Mason warned.

“We’re not anti-biomass,” Mason clarified, however, saying “it does have a role to play” as long as it helps deliver emission reductions. “And clearly there are types of bioenergy which are very good, such as waste and residues” from the forestry sector, he remarked.

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Former UN climate Chief Christiana Figueres, one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, has called on the European Union to step up regulatory action against deforestation in the global south by tackling emissions of imported agricultural goods, like beef, soy and palm oil.

José Blanco López, a Spanish MEP representing the European Parliament in the upcoming three-way talks on the revised EU directive, agreed with Mason that the push for renewable energies in Europe should not come at the expense of decarbonisation efforts.

“There are opportunities for increased use of biomass – but only with sustainability criteria to make sure it doesn’t create other problems for the environment” such as deforestation, Blanco López insisted, saying he was open to discussing Article 26 of the directive, which deals with sustainability criteria for biomass.

In fact, the Spanish lawmaker said “sustainability criteria have to be reinforced” for biomass to continue to thrive, emphasising the opportunities to use increased amounts of bioenergy in industrial sectors which are harder to electrify, such as heating and cooling.

But he made clear that the overarching objective was to decarbonise energy while taking national circumstances into account – “and above all secure our major common interest, which is the future of the planet”.

Biomass replacing coal for heating

For their part, energy industry representatives underlined the potential for biomass to replace coal in sectors like electricity or heating and cooling – at least in the short run.

Øyvind Vessia, the head of European affairs at Danish energy company Ørsted, said 54% of Danes are currently connected to the district heating system. If biomass wasn’t available to meet peak demand in winter time, some of that heating demand would be met by coal power, which is the most polluting fossil fuel, he remarked.

“In the longer term, other sources will replace biomass,” Vessia said, citing the “fantastic cost reductions” in solar and wind power, which – combined with heat pumps – will make green electricity cheaper for heating buildings in the future.

“But right now, with the need for heat in the winter, sustainable biomass is replacing coal in Denmark,” he told participants at the EURACTIV event, which was supported by the Polish electricity association, PKEE. And excessively rigid sustainability criteria could backfire on the climate by making it overly burdensome to use biomass like wood residues, which are sustainably sourced, he argued.

“Some trees are not necessarily defined as a residue but have essentially no value for anything other than energy,” Vessia pointed out, saying such wood “would most likely be left rotting” in the forest if the EU opted for overly stringent sustainability criteria. “So whether it’s round or whether it’s long is not the right way of defining whether it’s suitable for energy.”

Vessia also warned national governments against adopting tougher biomass sustainability criteria at home than at European level, saying this would only add complexity to the EU market, and increase costs. “Please make sure you keep a European market for sustainable biomass,” he said. “And make sure there is third-party auditing to make sure the system is credible. The rules need to be robust.”

The point was echoed by Maciej Gomólka, from Enea Bioenergia, a Polish energy firm, who expressed concern about proposed “capacity limitations” that would restrict renewable energy subsidies according to the size of power plants (the European Parliament has proposed capping subsidies at 20MW capacity, while the Council is more generous, at 75MW).

“The biomass sector should not be limited under the new directive,” Gomólka said, warning that a strict limit would encourage coal power instead. “If we don’t put this limitation, probably we can convert the existing plants to biomass generation,” he said.

Limited room for growth

A point on which everyone seems to agree is that the scope for biomass volumes to grow significantly in the future is limited, if present at all.

Rather, participants at the EURACTIV event said shifting current biomass uses to target the most fossil-fuel dependent sectors of the economy would be more helpful to meet Europe’s decarbonisation target.

“There is a certain amount of biomass that can be used for energy,” Mason explained, saying it is “very likely to be needed for aviation, for high-temperature industrial processes and for the biochemical industry,” which are heavily dependent on oil and other fossil fuels.

“Looking forward, we’ll need more biomass to decarbonise the transport and industrial sectors,” said Giulio Volpi, the Commission official. “So we need to make sure we use the limited biomass resource in an efficient way,” he said.

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