The EU needs bioenergy – and it must be sustainable

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

In Finland, biomass accounts for 80% of all renewable energy. [AEBIOM European Biomass Association/Flickr]

Over the past few months, tense debates on the sustainability of biomass used for energy production have arisen. Most stakeholders seem to agree on one point: we need an EU policy to ensure the sustainability of biomass, writes Harri Laurikka.

Harri Laurikka is the CEO of the Bioenergy Association of Finland.

The policy is needed to secure investments, to set a level playing field among member states and to provide answers to questions and concerns from society on future bioenergy developments. Bioenergy has played an important role as renewable energy consumption has significantly increased in the EU over the last 15 years. Currently, bioenergy is the largest renewable energy source in Europe. In Finland, bioenergy is the largest energy source and accounts for 26% of the total energy use and over 80% of the renewable energy use.  It comes as no surprise that the development of a new EU sustainability policy will have consequences on the future EU energy framework and on EU renewable energy and climate targets. This is why this issue should be carefully discussed and – in doing so – the whole spectrum of stakeholders should be involved. As a positive signal almost 1,000 contributors participated in the public consultation recently organised by the European Commission.

At the Paris climate conference last December, the sustainability of bioenergy was hardly discussed. The focus of the conference was on how to organise the transition from fossil fuels towards a sustainable low emission economy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had identified bioenergy as one of the key technologies to achieve ambitious emission targets cost-effectively in its assessment in 2014. The long-term vision of the Paris Agreement became a balance between carbon emissions and sinks post-2050. Bioenergy is a solution that fits very well into that vision, if used to replace fossil fuels and if carbon stocks in forests keep increasing.

For a long time, the IPCC has been clear on how to deal with emissions from biomass combustion: emissions should not be accounted under the energy sector but under the so-called “Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry” (LULUCF) sector in order to avoid double counting. This is a clear and established principle. In fact, the EU and many other countries have already informed at the UN Climate Convention that they will apply the most recent IPCC 2006 guidelines, based on the above mentioned principle, in the implementation of their contributions. This is a promising development towards embracing common methodologies within international climate policies. The Paris Agreement also requires all parties to improve their LULUCF inventories and reporting methods. The EU is already acquainted with LULUCF accounting methods, and an important proposal from the Commission on how to integrate this sector into the EU’s overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction objective is expected this summer.

On the ground, bioenergy production is not isolated from other wood uses: we often see more synergies than competition. For example, in Finland, residues used in heating installations come mostly from the value chains of the forest industry to produce timber and fibre wood. Sustainable forest management consists of a wide set of actions that range from sophisticated harvesting to regenerating wood, maintaining an adequate carbon sink and to ensuring biodiversity. In Finland, for instance, the bioenergy market enables forest operators to proceed with thinning operations that will eventually lead to stronger forest growth, carbon stock increase and to high-value timber.

The future EU sustainable bioenergy policy should take into account the fact that a single biomass type can be used to produce heat, electricity and biofuels. For instance, woodchips can be burned to produce heat and/or electricity, but so can lignocellulosic biofuels (plant matter) depending on the real market conditions, which will keep on evolving in the future. It therefore makes sense to address the sustainability of the raw materials and to trust the ability of the market to find the best value, rather than try to develop theoretic concepts around the different end uses.

The future EU policy should also ensure biomass to contribute to GHG savings by setting a minimum GHG emissions savings threshold, like the one already endorsed by the Commission.

I truly believe that a robust bioenergy policy is achievable by building on the existing policy framework. Several important pieces of EU legislation are in place or in the pipeline – on renewable energy, biodiversity, wood trade and land use change. If properly implemented and reinforced by national legislation and voluntary systems, this legislation could provide the foundations of a sustainable EU assurance system.

Such a system should take into account the administrative costs and burdens that companies – in particular SMEs – will eventually face. SMEs could be hindered by an unrealistic approach, acting de facto against locally-available sustainable bioenergy and therefore against climate targets and employment rates in European rural areas. This is why the Bioenergy Association of Finland, together with AEBIOM and its networks, is asking the European Commission to adopt a reasonable, credible threshold of 20 MW, coherent with ETS legislation, to apply its future sustainable bioenergy policy. This is also why the European bioenergy sector supports the risk-based approach (RBA) at macro level (regional or national) to evaluate whether forest biomass originates from forests where biodiversity and ecosystems are thoroughly protected and the carbon stock is maintained.

Finally, what companies investing in European sustainable bioenergy solutions today require can be summed up in one word:  confidence. The European Union has the capacity to send a strong policy signal and we should use it! What is not needed for the currently most important source of renewable energy, is a short-sighted policy with built-in revision requirements.

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