Bioenergy at the centre of EU renewable energy policy

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Bioenergy projects can create markets for low value roundwood and residues and therefore reduce waste, write a group of scientists. [Oregon Department of Forestry / Flickr]

Bioenergy has to be an essential part of the EU energy mix for at least the next 30 years. Without it, the commitment to a 1.5°C global warming target will be very hard, if not impossible to achieve, argue a group of scientists.

The following op-ed was signed by a group of scientists (full list of signatories at the bottom).

On 17 January, MEPs should vote to recognise the importance of bioenergy in meeting the EU’s renewable energy and climate change targets.

Amongst the renewable energy options, bioenergy has the unique potential to deliver significant benefits to society and the environment.

Bioenergy is one of the most affordable renewable energy technologies. It is available in solid, liquid and gaseous forms and can be used for power, heating and transport. Sources of bioenergy are plentiful and can bring wealth and jobs to rural areas across the world and enable profit to be derived from marginal land.

Bioenergy projects can create markets for low-value roundwood and residues and therefore reduce waste. Bioenergy fuels are indispensable in that they can be easily stored so when demand is high they can be mobilised as soon as they are required. As a result of all this, bioenergy can meet needs not readily met by other renewables and provide grid stability on cloudy or windless days.

To be a positive part of an integrated approach to tackling climate change bioenergy feedstocks should be obtained from sustainable sources and not lead to the destruction of primary forest or land designated for nature protection. The production pathway for bioenergy fuels needs to be able to meet strict greenhouse emissions thresholds compared to fossil fuels to ensure that tangible carbon reduction is achieved.

Stringent air quality standards must be adopted, implemented and regulated to ensure that any adverse effects to human health are minimised and bad practice is eliminated. More trees and perennial energy crops need to be planted than harvested in order to guard against any potential carbon debt, a scenario in which things get worse before they get better.

The amendments to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) adopted by the Environment Committee reinforce the requirement for a productive, sustainable and well-regulated bioenergy industry. The amendments seek to raise the bar and present bioenergy sustainability with even greater importance.

Even in advance of the RED amendments, governments across Europe and industry bodies are already adopting more stringent approaches that ensure that there is greater traceability, accuracy, transparency and reliability in bioenergy reporting.

The bioenergy sector has its detractors particularly amongst environmental NGOs who tend to present only the worst-case scenarios without looking at any of the multifarious benefits that bioenergy can provide. Most anti-bioenergy reports focus on three main arguments:

  • Bioenergy creates a market that is serviced by the felling of whole trees and entire forests;
  • Felling a tree for bioenergy and planting another to replace it leads to a carbon debt that takes many decades to be repaid;
  • Combustion of wood chip leads to higher emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulates (PM) that can lead to premature deaths.

All three of these common concerns can be dealt with. In 2016 only 3.3% of biomass harvested in the south-east US was used for pellet production for renewable power. This is because bioenergy is generally a co-product of the forest industry, and is not the primary driver of forest management and harvest decisions. Saw logs are sold to high-value markets to maximize profit and only the lower grade and lower value material is used for bioenergy.

It is true that if the life cycle analysis is based on single tree dynamics and the accounting starts at the point of cutting down that tree for the sole purpose of generating energy then it will take decades for the carbon to be recovered through tree regrowth. However, the reality of forest management is that it occurs at a plot-to-landscape level where multiple products are derived from that landscape over decades to centuries.

At this scale there is a significant fraction of the forest carbon that has much shorter cycling time e.g. forest thinnings, and being able to carefully plan for their use alongside existing markets for forest products allows forest managers to invest in long-term productivity improvements that will enable the overall forest carbon stocks to remain stable, or even increase over the decadal timeframe. This approach also allows local communities to gain from their local resources and supports protection and recovery planning for the forests.

In most countries, less than 2% of productive forests are felled each year, leaving 98% to assimilate atmospheric carbon released from any bioenergy combustion. In addition, in the US and Europe forests are growing faster than they are being felled, with this growth in the land area being driven by markets.

This is providing an increase in carbon stocks through the larger area of forested land and because younger stands/forests absorb more carbon than mature ones. Furthermore, the anticipated future development of Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) technologies will enable some bioenergy pathways to achieve negative emissions.

With regards to air quality, it is very difficult to identify the impacts of bioenergy combustion in isolation. Road transport, particularly from diesel vehicles, is a much greater source of PM and NOx pollutants. If anything these pollutants are likely to fall in the future with stricter emissions standards being adopted, as abatement technologies improve and transport is decarbonised.

In any case, an increase in demand for bioenergy is likely to improve forest management practices and stimulate more planting of woodland and perennial energy crops. The former can help reduce forest fires whilst additional wooded land cover can help improve water quality and increase flood defence. All of these will protect human life.

We believe that bioenergy has to be an essential part of the EU energy mix for at least the next 30 years. Without bioenergy and CCUS technologies, the COP21 commitment for a 1.5 degree reduction will be very hard, if not impossible to achieve. The negative impacts on the climate and society from such a failure will be significant for humans and biodiversity.

However, at the same time we clearly need to promote good practice in a well-regulated bioenergy industry that ensures it is done well. We therefore urge MEPs to vote in favour of RED amendments that will consolidate bioenergy at the centre of EU renewable energy policy.


List of signatories, by order in which they responded:

  • Dr Astley Hastings, Senior Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen
  • Prof John (Jack) N. Saddler, Professor of Forest Products Biotechnology/Bioenergy, University of British Columbia
  • Prof Gary Bull, Head of the Forest Resources Management Dept, University of British Columbia
  • Prof. Nilay Shah, Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London
  • Prof Per Gundersen, Dept. of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen
  • Dr H. Martin Junginger,  Professor Bio-Based Economy, Utrecht University
  • Prof Ioannis Dimitriou, Associate Professor, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • Prof Bruce Lippke, Professor Emeritus College of Environment, University of Washington
  • Prof Lars Rytter, Associate Professor, The Forestry Research Institute of Sweden
  • Dina Bacovsky, Unit Head Biofuels, BIOENERGY 2020+ GmbH, Wieselburg
  • Dr Oskar Englund, Postdoctoral researcher, Chalmers University of Technology
  • Prof Iain Donnison, Institute of Biological, Environmental & Rural Sciences (IBERS), Aberystwyth University
  • Prof Pål Börjesson, Environmental and Energy Systems Studies,  Lund University
  • Dr Berien Elbersen , Wagenigen Environmental Research (WENR)
  • Svetlana Proskurina, PhD student, Lappeenranta University of Technology
  • Andreas Kiesel, Department Biobased Products and Energy Crops, University of Hohenheim
  • Malin Pettersson, PhD student Faculty of Engineering, Lund University
  • Prof Iris Lewandowski, Biobased Products and Energy Crops, University of Hohenheim
  • Ernst Höftberger, Unit Head – Technical Energy Systems, BIOENERGY 2020+ GmbH , Wieselburg
  • Dr Jonathan Scurlock, Visiting Fellow, The Open University and policy adviser, National Farmers Union
  • Manuel Schwabl, Unit Head bei Bioenergy 2020+ GmbH,  Vienna University of Technology
  • Dr Jeremy Woods, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London
  • Dr Stephen Peake, Senior Lecturer, The Open University
  • Manfred Woergetter, Senior Consultant & Networker, BIOENERGY 2020+ GmbH, Wieselburg
  • Dr HW Elbersen, Senior Scientist, Wageningen Research
  • Dr Jaap Kiel, Programme Development Manager Biomass, ECN
  • Prof Patricia Osseweijer, Ambassador TU Delft Brazil and chair Biotechnology & Society
  • Prof Luuk A.M. van der Wielen, Director, Bernal Institute and Chair of Biosystems Engineering & Design, University of Limerick
  • i.r. J.H. Spijker, senior-researcher Management forest, nature & urban green, Wageningen Environmental Research
  • Dr Rocio Diaz-Chavez, Visiting Senior Research Fellow,  Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London
  • Prof Indroneil Ganguly, Assistant Professor and Associate Director, Center for International Trade in Forest Products. University of Washington, Seattle
  • Prof Jukka Konttinen,  Head of Laboratory of Chemistry and Bioengineering, Tampere University of Technology
  • Dr Emiliano Maletta, Agricultural Systems Research Group, Department of Agricultural Production, Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM) and Director, Bioenergy Crops Ltd.
  • Prof. Dr Milan Martinov, Faculty of Technical Sciences, Chair of Biosystems Engineering, Novi Sad
  • Livia Spezzani, Bioenergy Project Manager – ValBiom
  • Prof Julian Kinderlerer, Immediate past President, European Group on Ethics , Emeritus Professor of IP Law, IP Law & Policy Research Unit, University of Cape Town.
  • Dr Timothy Volk, Senior Research Associate, Forest and Natural Resources Management, SUNY-ESF
  • Associate professor Gustaf Egnell, Forest-based bioenergy, Department of Forest Ecology and Management, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • Prof Kevin Whitty, Professor of Chemical Engineering, University of Utah
  • Prof Bruce E. Dale, PhD, University Distinguished Professor, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Michigan State University
  • Dr Víctor Hugo Durán Zuazo, IFAPA Centro Las Torres-Tomejil, CAPDR-Junta de Andalucía
  • Prof Lovisa Björnsson, Environmental and Energy Systems Studies, Department of Technology and Society, Lund University
  • Prof John M Bryden, Emeritus Professor University of Aberdeen, recently Research Professor at Norwegian Institute for Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO)
  • Prof Arnaldo Walter, Associate Professor – University of Campinas
  • Prof Richard Templer, Director of Innovation,  Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London
  • Maria Puig Arnavat, Researcher, Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, Technical University of Denmark
  • Prof David Newman, Professor and Chair, Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management, SUNY-ESF
  • Dr Paul Adams, Sustainable Energy Research Team, Dept Mechanical Engineering, University of Bath
  • Prof Jan Stenlid, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • Prof Claus Felby, Professor Biomass & Bioenergy, University of Copenhagen
  • Prof Glaucia Mendes Souza, University of São Paulo Full Professor, FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program President
  • Prof Walter Haslinger, CSO, BIOENERGY 2020+ GmbH & Adj. Prof. Lulea University of Technology
  • Prof Bengt Olsson, Associate Professor, Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • Dr Mattias Lundblad, Researcher, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • Prof Tomas Nordfjell, Professor of Forest Technology, Department of Forest Biomaterials and Technology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • Dr Dale Greene, Dean, Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources, University of Georgia
  • Hans Langeveld, director, Biomass Research, Wageningen
  • Juan Carrasco, Joint Program Co-ordinator, EERA Bioenergy Joint Program (JP) On behalf of the JP Management Board
  • Prof. Rubens Maciel Filho, Full Professor, School of Chemical Engineering, State University of Campinas-UNICAMP
  • Prof Telma Franco, State University of Campinas –UNICAMP
  • Prof. Dr Wim C. Turkenburg, Emeritus professor ‘Science, Technology & Society’ Utrecht, University
  • Prof. Univ.-Doz. Dipl.-Ing. Dr Ingwald Obernberger, BIOS BIOENERGIESYSTEME GmbH, Graz
  • Wiebren de Jong, Professor (section head), Faculty 3mE, department P&E, Large-Scale Energy storage section, TU Delft

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