Bioenergy is the weakest link in EU renewable energy policy

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

Biomass may increase our energy independence, but it does not necessarily help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. [Linda MartinFlickr]

As the Commission closes it public consultation on the future of the EU’s renewable energy policies, their success greatly depends on the questionable sustainability of bioenergy, writes Sini Eräjää.

Sini Eräjää is EU bioenergy policy officer at BirdLife Europe and the European Environmental Bureau.

Most would agree that the EU’s renewable energy policies so far have been a success, almost doubling the share of renewable energy in the last decade. Policies have pushed almost all EU member states to adopt policies to promote renewable energy and helped to build a thriving renewables industry.

Key elements of this success have been a clear legal framework and binding national targets for renewable energy. At least compared to the outlook after the year 2020, the ongoing decade has provided a solid framework for the renewables industry. Speculation about weak voluntary governance measures, no clear division of the effort between member states and reduced monitoring and planning under the pretext of reducing the administrative burden are all making the next decade look much more uncertain.

Yet with a robust set of policies, the EU still could, and should, go beyond 27% of renewable energy.  Strong, continued renewable energy policy needs to be embedded within an equally strong energy efficiency policy, to deliver on the EU’s potential of reducing its end use energy consumption by at least 40% by 2030.

But there are also ways to measure success besides than the sheer volume of renewable energy produced. The real question is whether renewable energy is actually moving us to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly energy system that reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Or experience so far already shows that particularly in the case of bioenergy, this is not given.

The 10% target for renewable energy in the transport sector has almost exclusively incentivised the use of unsustainable crop-based biofuels, causing negative environmental and social impacts and undermining GHG emissions reductions. Other forms of bioenergy have been leading to increased harvesting and pressure on forests and to the conversion of grasslands for biogas maize monocultures, without any assurance that GHG emissions are really reduced.

The Commission has already partly recognised these weaknesses in the current regime and promised to propose a new bioenergy sustainability policy as part of the renewable energy package by end of this year. The key questions is now whether this policy will live up to the challenge and really curb the unsustainable use of bioenergy.

Traditionally, attention has been focussed on the sustainability of biomass production, i.e. agriculture and forestry. In a world of limited resources, we cannot afford to just burn them away, even if they have been produced renewable and “sustainably”. We must use natural resources in more efficient and intelligent ways. Just as it doesn’t make sense to make fuel out of food, even if it was organically and sustainably produced, it doesn’t make sense to burn quality wood, even if it comes from a sustainably-managed forest. The new sustainability policy needs to ensure that food, whole trees and other high quality biomass is not directly burned away for energy.

The scale of the demand for biomass created through energy policies is also a crucial aspect of sustainability.

To curb the negative impacts of food-based biofuels, the Commission proposed to limit their volume to 7% of the energy mix in transport sector. A similar approach should be considered for all bioenergy, making room for renewable energy sources that are not based on the burning of carbon-based resources like biomass and advancing the restructuring of the energy sector.

A recent study published by the European Commission once more confirms that the risk of failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is significant in the case of bioenergy. If the EU continues bioenergy use in line with the 27% renewable energy target without any safeguards, bioenergy use will cause annual emissions of about 500 MtCO2 in 2030, a large part of which currently goes unaccounted for. This is no marginal amount: it corresponds to about 10% of the EU’s current, accounted annual emissions.

The EU’s aim is to be a global number one in renewable energy. This goal only makes sense if the renewable energy is both environmentally sustainable and actually contributes to climate change mitigation.

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