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Will the Draft European Biomass Policy Repeat Biofuel Mistakes?

In a leaked draft proposal for a European biomass policy, seen by REW, the European Commission has laid out sustainability criteria for the Union’s future biomass use.

The proposal would require a minimum greenhouse gas savings of 60 percent compared with fossil fuels. It would rule against feedstock production in high-biodiversity areas, and it would specify that forest biomass can be sourced only from sustainably managed forests. These criteria would be applied to biomass installations with a generating capacity above 1 MW for electrical power and 2.5 MW for thermal. The proposal would also define a greenhouse gas accounting methodology that would be applicable across Europe.

Regarding indirect land use change (ILUC) — the unintended consequences of replacing food crops with energy crops — the proposal says biomass production "should not cause land use change", and proposes to establish land criteria to avoid ILUC, but does not outline specific requirements as it does for forests or high-biodiversity areas.

Certain green groups have said that because the proposal does not address the issue of "carbon debt" — wherein carbon is absorbed by forests and other natural areas and is released when they are disturbed — and does not require biomass project developers to take ILUC into account, it will ultimately prove ineffective and may end up creating more emissions than it mitigates.

The EC has already been forced to back down on its biofuel targets, and to agree to take ILUC into account for biofuel production. About the leaked proposal, campaign group Birdlife Europe said in a statement:“What the Commission is proposing is a simple extension of the old biofuel criteria without dealing with any of the specific problems of (non-biofuel) biomass. It also ignores ILUC, which is surprising, given the fact that the Commission itself recently tabled a proposal for dealing with ILUC caused by biofuels." 

The EC has said it does not comment on leaked documents.

Birdlife’s head of EU policy, Ariel Brunner, said the biomass proposal should include carbon accounting – both for carbon debt, in the case of harvesting wood from forests, and for ILUC in the case of planting energy crops on agricultural land. “There’s no real difference between using agricultural land for biofuels or biomass,” he said. “If you displace 1 ha of wheat production, that’s what you are displacing in either case. So there wouldn’t be any reason to treat the ILUC of arable land used for biogas or wood pellets differently from land used for biodiesel.”   

Biomass industry trade group Aebiom has called for legislation to require sustainable forest management, pointing to studies which show that managed forests can sequester up to 10 times as much carbon as non-managed forests. But Brunner said the proposal’s requirement that woody biomass be sourced from sustainably managed forests wasn’t strong enough. “Then other uses — pulp and paper, domestic heating — will be pushed to use unsustainable sources, so you won’t solve that problem with sustainability criteria,” he said, proposing alternative rules to prevent the most “wasteful” wood-burning: “You should not be burning virgin wood, but first use it and then recover it and burn it at the end of its last cycle so that you are more efficient in your use of wood overall, and the wood lingers around longer before it gets into the atmosphere."

Brunner also suggested that the EC use a similar logic in its biomass criteria to its proposed cap on biofuels from food crops, capping the amount of biomass from agricultural land and around forests.

Harmonising Standards

Aebiom supports EU-wide criteria for biomass use, saying that differing standards have undermined sustainable practices, caused market uncertainty, hampered trade and increased costs. Brunner agrees with the need for harmonised rules, but for other reasons. Different regions have different issues in relation to biomass, he said, noting for example that Finland, where the energy industry trade body says the nation has more forest than it can use, has been “extensively logged” and is “aggressive in bioenergy development” to the point where bioenergy has displaced other, more sustainable renewable energy sources.

He also pointed to the rapid growth in imported North American wood pellets into the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. In heavily forested countries such as Poland and Bulgaria, he said, there are still some old-growth forests and many mature forest areas, where species that have already been wiped out in western Europe and Scandinavia still live, and he said the possibility of extensive logging in those areas, potentially for export, would be problematic for biodiversity and carbon emissions.

And, he added, in poorer parts of Europe half of all harvested wood is used for domestic heating, and power plants using large amounts of forest gleanings could compete with that use. “Often the poorest part of the population depends on wood for heating, and today they can get wood cheaply or for free as forest owners allow them to take it. If this wood starts being bought by big rich utilities that can pay, those poorer people will find themselves without heating in the winter,” he said, and would resort to illegal logging — as in Greece where there has been an epidemic of illegal tree-cutting by people needing fuel, he said.

“None of this needs to happen, it is all avoidable to an extent, but we need policies in place to ensure it doesn't go on,” he concluded.

How Much Regulation?

Aebiom has said that regulations that are too strict could derail the industry. Brunner disagrees. “We believe there is potential in sustainable bioenergy, and that it should be developed,” he said, “but we need to make sure we don’t subsidise the things that are problematic. For example, we know logging trees for bioenergy is problematic from a greenhouse gas point of view, and also more likely to generate ecological pressure on forests. If policy pushes people to use waste wood, you’d still have an industry developing but would increase rather than decrease efficiency. It’s not so much about stopping bioenergy; it’s about giving signals to people to use the right bioenergy in the right way,” he said.  

Lastly, Brunner said, it is crucial that policy encourages matching aggregated demand to sustainable supply. “If we just try to have excessive amounts of energy coming from biomas,” he said, “at a certain point we will exceed the amount of biomass we can sustainably harvest from this continent. If we use biomass more wisely, a bigger share of our energy can come from it.”

Analysts expect biomass to meet roughly half of Europe’s 20 percent-by-2020 renewable energy target. Biomass use for heating and cooling is expected to grow by 47 percent by 2020, and biomass use for electricity generation will more than double, according to Aebiom's analysis.

Lead image: Wood pellets in hand on firewood background via Shutterstock

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