How Nordic countries can inspire the EU’s bioenergy policy

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

Sweden, 2013. [bjornsphoto/Flickr]

The experience of sustainable forestry management in Sweden and the other Nordic countries could serve as an inspiration for the EU when it draws up sustainability criteria for biomass, write Pernilla Winnhed, Carina Håkansson and Gustav Melin.

Pernilla Winnhed is CEO of Swedenergy. Carina Håkansson and Gustav Melin are respectively CEOs of the Swedish Forest Industries Federation and the Swedish Bioenergy Association.

The European Union cannot overlook the potential of bioenergy if it wants to reach ambitious climate target as well as other objectives such as targets on renewables, resource efficiency, security of supply, growth, employment and industrial competitiveness.

The forest not only supplies the raw material for paper and solid wood products, it also has a great potential for renewable energy production. As the EU designs its energy and climate policy for post-2020, it is essential to consider this remarkable asset.

Without a congruent EU bioenergy policy with the aim to utilise this renewable source for energy, it will be very hard and expensive to reach the EU’s climate targets post-2020.

It is, however, a basic requirement that removals and usage take place in a sustainable way. This should be included in the upcoming sustainability criteria for solid biomass.

Bioenergy is already by far the largest renewable energy source in the EU. It could account for a major part of renewable energy growth post-2020 if given a policy framework that does not unduly restrict its further deployment.

Bioenergy has certain advantages compared to other renewable energy sources, as it can be steered and used according to demand. This flexibility is of the utmost importance, not least when the use of weather-dependant renewable energy increases. Bioenergy is, therefore, a necessary part of a future climate neutral energy system. There is potential for increased use of biomass from sustainable supply chains, particularly in member states with good natural conditions for agriculture and forestry. Increased utilisation of bioenergy enhances the EU’s possibility to meet the climate challenge, and at the same time reduces dependency on imported fossil fuels, like oil and gas.

Regrettably, we see tendencies to restrict the deployment of bioenergy by new legislation. One must understand and consider the differences in the conditions for forestry in different member states. In this regard, the knowledge and experience of bioenergy and sustainable forestry management in Sweden and the other Nordic countries could be useful and serve as an inspiration for others.

We are convinced that it is fully possible to combine an increased use of residues from the forest industries for a sustainable energy future with a long-term sustainable land use policy for agriculture and forestry while respecting environmental targets and biodiversity.

We currently have a sustainable use of residues for bioenergy. We want to continue with this climate friendly production and further develop the utilisation of residues and by-products. If this requires the introduction of sustainability criteria, it would be wise to use a risk-based approach.

The sustainability criteria must not be so complicated and detailed that they become an administrative burden and add costs that threaten the mobilisation of forest and industrial residues for energy. The big loser of such a policy would be the climate, when the possibility to reduce fossil fuels is limited.

Another result would be a higher dependence on imported oil and gas from unpredictable countries, and a lower than possible use of domestic, renewable energy resources. We believe that it is fully possible to find a good balance when designing such common sustainability criteria.

We want to highlight the following:

  1. The focus must be on the climate and energy targets, as well as on growth and employment.
  2. The requirements must not distort the market. Instead they should promote competitive end-use neutrality. The risks associated with unsustainable imports from third-party countries must, therefore, be handled by EU.
  3. The administrative burden must be minimised. This is critically important for the 16 million small forest owners in Europe, of which a majority own less than 3 hectares.
  4. The criteria should promote sustainability in the mobilisation of bioenergy.

The European countries have, through Forest Europe, defined common criteria for sustainable forestry in Europe. Through the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), there is already a regulatory framework for wood products in place to deter wood from illegally logged forests from entering the market. When the sustainability criteria for biomass are designed, they should consider these, as well as other already existing legal frameworks and agreements.

As we see it, there may be risks associated with imports from countries outside EU. In these cases, other guarantees may be required, e.g. by using certification schemes recognised by EU. It is of great importance to separate unsustainable biomass from biomass that has been produced in a sustainable manner.

Europe’s forests have increased in biomass volume by over 12% since 2000. The annual removals (fellings) are lower than the annual increment, resulting in increasing assets of biogenic carbon. This green carbon can be used to substitute fossil carbon and reduce the net flow of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

When biomass is used in combined heat and power plants, whereby the heat is also used for instance in district heating, the biomass is used with high efficiency. With a combination of flue gas cleaning with flue gas condensation, recovering the energy from the flue gases, the energy efficiency is close to 100%.

Europe cannot refrain from using this sustainable and very efficient renewable energy source.

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