Biomass’ ‘zero’ ETS rating burns us all

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

Tree stumps being chipped for biomass. [Asea!/Flickr]

We have no idea if the biomass burned actually reduces CO2 emissions, which raises questions about the energy source’s zero rating in the EU’s Emissions Trading System, writes Carlos Calvo Ambel.

Carlos Calvo Ambel is energy policy analyst at Transport & Environment

Neither sustainability or carbon-neutrality is a given when burning biomass – and that is agreed upon by no less than the European Environment Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency of the US, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and even the Joint Research Centre (the European Commission’s in-house science service).

So we were given pause for thought this week when a study by BirdLife, European Environmental Bureau and Transport & Environment found that the annual smokestack emissions from biomass in the EU emission trading system (ETS) – where they are given a zero-rating – are between 90 and 150 million tonnes of CO2.

If these smokestack emissions were fully accounted for and fully auctioned, it would add up to €1 billion annually. The EU ETS considers all biomass burned in the installations throughout Europe regulated by the scheme to be carbon-neutral. But we know this not to be the case. It’s time to reassess the zero-rating criteria of biomass in the ETS.

The problem is we currently have no criteria to tell us which biomass being burned is having a positive impact on the environment and which is not. Although they are far from perfect, we already have some environmental safeguards in Europe when it comes to biofuels. Why shouldn’t we also have safeguards for solid biomass?

In the EU we have the target to fulfil at least 20% of our total energy needs with renewables by 2020. When talking about renewables, most people think about solar, wind and hydro. However, the reality is that in 2012, 62% of our renewable production was plant-based. Forests are by far the main source of renewable energy in Europe. If biomass is currently the main contributor towards our renewable target, shouldn’t we ensure that it is actually delivering environmental benefits?

The EU has also agreed on a renewables target for 2030. We should ensure that the policies designed to achieve it recognise that biomass is a limited resource and, as such, should be used where it provides a higher value for society, the so-called cascading principle. When sectors compete for biomass, it should be used in those where there are no better alternatives. Other renewable energies should play a more important role towards the target.

This does not mean that all biomass currently being burned is bad or should no longer be used. But there is a serious sustainability issue and we have no idea if the biomass burned actually reduces CO2 emissions. The recently-concluded EU ETS consultation was an opportunity to raise this issue, which also applies to the Renewables Energy Directive. Biomass is burned in big EU ETS-regulated factories, but also in homes, farms and commercial buildings throughout the continent.

The zero-rating criteria in the EU ETS is another support scheme that biomass burning benefits from. If it is actually delivering a positive return for the environment, we should keep supporting it – but what if that is not the case? As of today, we simply don’t know.

In the case of American wood pellets exported to the EU, it is clear there is a problem in the US and Europe is responsible for it. That problem has just started; although currently most of the biomass burned in Europe is produced in the EU, to meet our renewables targets biomass demand is expected to increase considerably (40% by 2020) and we will have to import more and more. This brings the added problem of weakening Europe’s energy independence. Shouldn’t we solve the problem before it gets worse?

The solution is obvious. Let’s establish strict and clear criteria to ensure that what is burned in Europe is sustainable and delivers the much-needed carbon reductions now. The Commission has already announced a revision of biomass sustainability, to take place in 2016 or 2017. The current revision of the EU ETS can be the spearhead and the first step to solve this accounting problem.

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