October 24, 2017
BRUSSELS INSIDER #1 by Clare Taylor
Biomass worse than coal? Most scientists don’t think so
October 24, 2017
NGO’s are waging a fierce campaign against biomass that may severely limit its future use for energy. Most scientists, however, appear to support the biomass industry. The outcome of the debate will be crucial to the future of biomass, which currently accounts for about two-thirds of Europe’s renewable energy.
On 23 October, the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) will vote on amendments to the revised Renewable Energy Directive, part of the Clean Energy for all Europeans package.
As well as setting a renewables target for 2030, currently proposed at 27%, the revised Renewable Energy Directive will set new standards for bioenergy: a greenhouse gas emissions requirement (Article 26.7), sustainability criteria for power generation from biomass (Article 26.1), and a Risks Based Approach for forestry biomass (Article 26.5).
The final decisions on these articles will have significant repercussions for the biomass industry. According to Didzis Palejs, AEBIOM president: “Progress in renewables should never be taken for granted. If bioenergy loses its edge in Europe, past efforts will be undermined and oil will fill the space left. In this key moment for Europe’s energy future, we should not risk weakening the backbone of renewable energy in Europe – bioenergy.”
Over 50 % of renewable energy in the EU currently originates from biomass. Most Member States have incentives in place to support the use of biomass in heat and electricity generation. At national level, the five largest bioenergy consumers represent more than half of the EU’s total bioenergy consumption (54%), and in all of these countries, biomass development is supported.
Germany remains the leading country with 17% of the total EU-28 consumption, followed by France with 12%, both Italy and Sweden with 9% and finally Finland with 7 %. In Finland and Sweden, the share of bioenergy in the total energy consumption is 33.9% and 32.6% respectively.
In 2015, bioenergy accounted for 10% of the total energy consumed and 61.34% of renewable energy. Biomass is therefore a major part of meeting the EU’s binding commitment on Member States to provide 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020, and the current expectations are that biomass will continue to play an important role in meeting EU energy and climate targets.
However, “ongoing debates about the role that bioenergy could play in decarbonizing the EU economy by 2050 are showing political divergence and a growing risk factor,” says Jean-Marc Jossart, Secretary General of AEBIOM, the European Biomass Association.
Environmental NGOs have been fiercely critical of the Commission’s proposals. Published on 6 October, a joint paper presenting the position of WWF, Birdlife, Oxfam, Transport & Environment, Fern, and Zero Waste Europe states that: “The EU’s current bioenergy policies have led to growing forest harvests and burning of trees for energy […] This is neither climate friendly nor an efficient use of limited biomass resources and actually threatens forest ecosystems and biomass supplies to other forest-based industries.”
On 17 October, the European Biomass Association (AEBIOM) published a statistical report, based on Eurostat data, which tells a different story. Highlighting that “the share of wood harvested in EU forests which is used in the energy sector has been rather stable (20% on average since 2000)”, and that, for the most part (95%) biomass is sourced from within Europe, where old-growth forests are protected.
The AEBIOM report also notes that solid biomass (wood, sawdust, and crop waste) is the main fuel used in biomass for energy, representing 70% (95.285 ktoe) of the total. Liquid biofuel and biogas account for 11.4% and 11.5% respectively, while municipal waste-to-energy accounts for 7.1%.
A majority (57.7%) of biomass used to generate electricity is used in combined heat and power plants. For heating, solid biomass, mostly woody biomass, accounts for 91% of bio-based fuel.
“Both for environmental and economic reasons, wood for energy is mostly sourced from by-products of forest management operations and from wood based industry, such as sawmills,” according to the AEBIOM report.
In an article published on 18 October, Sylvain Lhôte, director general at CEPI, the European association representing the forest fibre and paper industry, also emphasizes the link between sustainable biomass production and land use, and bemoans the lack of reasoned, fact-based debate in the recent European Parliament discussions on carbon emissions from land and forestry, with its new land use, land use change and forestry regulation (LULUCF).
In an interview with Energy Post, Alex Mason, senior policy officer with WWF, rejected the claims of the bioenergy industry. He said: “Even if you manage your forest sustainably in economic and ecological terms, burning trees from it is still worse than fossil fuels in climate terms. We’re not against burning wood full stop. Some waste and residues it makes sense to use. But if you cut down trees – any trees – to burn, this is worse in climate terms than using fossil fuels. The science on this is not really controversial anymore.”
According to the environmental NGOs position paper: “using land to grow biofuel crops and burning trees and stumps for energy is completely counterproductive in climate terms and can increase emissions for decades.”
AEBIOM, however, has a lot of scientific support to draw from. For example, a group of bioenergy scientists working with the International Energy Agency (IEA) published an open letter on 13 March of this year, stating: “The vast majority of forest biomass for bioenergy is obtained from forests managed for multiple purposes, including the production of pulp and sawlogs, and provision of other ecosystem services.”
The letter was a response to a report “Woody Biomass for Power and Heat: Impacts on the Global Climate” authored by independent policy institute Chatham House, which was highly critical of the use of woody biomass.
The IEA bioenergy scientists describe a more complex picture regarding emissions, stating that “the impact of bioenergy implementation on net GHG emissions savings is context- and feedstock-specific,” and, also note that, when comparing emissions from burning wood with fossil fuels, a key distinction is between biogenic and fossil carbon.
In brief, ”burning fossil fuels releases CO2 that has been locked up for millions of years. By contrast, burning biomass simply returns to the atmosphere the CO2 that was absorbed as the plants grew, and there is no net release of CO2 if the cycle of growth and harvest continues in the future.”
They argue that a market for bioenergy can support investment in forests, and reforestation: “forest management planning in anticipation of increased forest wood demand can support increased wood harvest and steady growth in forest carbon stocks.”
They also warn that limiting feedstocks to waste and residues is likely to be counter-productive: “Specifying only some forest biomass types as eligible bioenergy feedstocks prevents the effective management of forest resources to economically meet multiple objectives, including climate change mitigation.”
The IEA scientists are not alone. According to a report published in April by EASAC (European Academies’ Science Advisory Council), “carbon emissions per unit of energy produced by SRC [short rotation coppicing] are substantially below those associated with fossil fuels.”
And then there is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. In 2012, the IPCC published the “Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN)” to impartially assess the scientiﬁc literature on the potential role of renewable energy in the mitigation of climate change. The IPCC work points out that there are risks with bad biomass production; however, it is also very clear that it is well understood how to produce biomass with major co-benefits, including GHG mitigation.
The IPCC report highlights that: “Bioenergy has a significant greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation potential, provided that the resources are developed sustainably and that efficient bioenergy systems are used. Certain current systems and key future options including perennial cropping systems, use of biomass residues and wastes and advanced conversion systems are able to deliver 80 to 90% emission reductions compared to the fossil energy baseline.”
In an interview with Energy Post, one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, André Faaij, scientific director of Energy Academy Europe and professor Energy Systems Analysis at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, explains further: “What it means to produce biomass in a sustainable way is understood. We know very well how to manage forests, and how to manage land for crop production to get a good environmental performance and a very good greenhouse gas balance. Biomass is always discussed in the context of managing land in a proper way.”
Faaij points to the comprehensive and growing body of knowledge on sustainable biomass and sustainable forest management, and notes that strict sustainability criteria for forest bioenergy are already in place in a number of Member States.
“To meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement, biomass has a unique role to play. It covers a part of the energy material demand that is hard to cover with other options, through carbon capture and storage, it can deliver negative emissions, and, managed sustainably, biomass will lower greenhouse gas emissions from land use overall. These three aspects make it an absolutely vital mitigation option,” he says.
Regarding the current debate on biomass in the Renewable Energy Directive proposals, Faaij says: “This should not be a story of conflict – it is in fact a story of reconciliation and synergies between different environmental benefits and targets. That is the ultimate tragedy of using slogans such as ‘biomass is worse than coal’ – because it misses out on an opportunity.”
The Environment Committee of the European Parliament on 23 October voted in favour of a proposal of phasing out biofuels seen as damaging for the environment. However, the Committee did not go as far as prohibiting burning wood for heating and electricity generation, as NGOs had demanded.
According to a report on Euractiv, environmental groups were disappointed by the result. NGO Birdlife for example said: “The Parliament failed to put an end to growing exploitation of forests for energy, weakening even the Commission’s weak proposal for sustainability requirements on forest biomass. ‘The outcome of the vote today allows increased exploitation of forests and logging of sensitive habitats just to burn the wood for energy,’ said Sini Eräjää, EU bioenergy policy officer, Birdlife. ‘We’ll see more EU mandated use of whole trees or stumps despite a wide scientific acknowledgement that is bad for the climate’. This outcome fails both forest conservation and climate mitigation, and it also fails to provide long term stability for truly sustainable bioenergy producers, such as the ones processing waste streams.
The ball is now with the rest of the Parliament and with member states who can still make changes to the proposed legislation, said Birdlife. ‘We need an urgent reckoning from all involved. Another 10 years of mindless support for burning forests would make the Paris objectives unachievable and drive massive loss of biodiversity and land conflicts,’ said Eräjää.
Industry association AEBIOM on the other hand was positive. “In the final adoption of its opinion, the ENVI Committee has decided tonight to address the sustainability issue both seriously and pragmatically, allowing solid bioenergy to continue playing its essential role in the European energy transition”, said Jean-Marc Jossart , AEBIOM Secretary General. “While this vote acknowledges the positive work and contribution of thousands of local bioenergy players, it also calls into question the systematic bioenergy bashing that occurred surrounding this debate. We are now counting on the entire Parliament and Member States to follow the approach taken by the Commission, and endorsed by the ENVI Committee, to support bioenergy in its role in achieving the EU’s climate and energy goals.”