Baseload, Bioenergy

A Burning Question: Are Europe’s Biomass Imports Sustainable?

Europe’s debate over the sustainability of its imported biomass feedstock is heating up.

While analysts expect biomass to meet roughly half of Europe’s 20 percent-by-2020 renewable energy target, and biomass pellets imported from the southeastern U.S. and British Columbia, Canada are seen as crucial to meeting these targets, there is much debate over how sustainable these imports really are.

This debate has now gone global, with both exporters and importers attempting to influence a European policy in the works. In an article in European Voice, Danna Smith of U.S. NGO the Dogwood Alliance said Europe shouldn’t view North America’s sustainability issues as less important than those of other bioenergy feedstock-producing regions such as Indonesia and Brazil. Smith called for strong forest sustainability criteria to be applied to the southern U.S., Europe’s leading source of biomass pellets, where “there are virtually no laws regulating industrial forestry on private lands which make up 90 percent of the forests in the region.” Due to this lack of a legal framework, claims are growing that exports to Europe could increase carbon emissions from North American forests and threaten the region’s long-term forest sustainability.

A number of studies have measured the carbon implications of energy production from forest biomass, with some concluding that carbon emissions from wood-based bioenergy can be worse than burning coal while others said energy from woody biomass can offer significant carbon mitigation benefits. A new report from trade group Aebiom’s Bridging with Biomass coalition (BwB) attempts to counter the negative claims with data on how biomass pellets are produced.

It concluded that net forest growth in the southeastern U.S. exceeds net removals by 35 percent, and found “strong forestry research, education, and outreach programmes throughout the region coupled with a long history of investment and commitment to forest retention and management on the part of forest landowners.”

Previous studies’ conclusions “are very heavily dependent upon underlying assumptions” which “are sometimes unrealistic” and often fail to reflect current biomass production and conversion practices, the report said.

For example, BwB found that studies indicating long carbon debt repayment times tended to assume that forests are managed and harvested purely for bioenergy, are slow-growing, were previous unmanaged, had high original carbon stocks and would maintain these stocks over time. Actual wood pellet production, BwB said, comes largely from residues and low-value products of existing forestry activities in forests being managed for other purposes (such as timber and pulpwood).

“When realistic assumptions are applied, production of energy from woody biomass results in carbon payback times and sequestration [losses] that are very small compared to the substantial carbon savings achieved over time,” BwB said.

In addition, BwB found that a number of studies assumed that, without being managed for bioenergy production, forests will continue to grow naturally. “This is not realistic when evaluating biomass from existing production forests which have been managed for timber and pulp for years,” BwB said. It would be more appropriate to “recognise the need of forest owners (especially private owners) to continue to receive economic benefit from the forest,” it said.

A scenario in which a 30-year rotation forest in the southeastern U.S. was harvested entirely for bioenergy would result in a carbon payback time of 22 years, the report found – but, BwB said, only if the alternative model was based on a “no harvest” scenario. “This scenario is unrealistic since management of forests strictly for bioenergy is not expected to play a role in actual pellet production for the foreseeable future,” it said.

The report found that bioenergy gleaned from existing sustainably managed forests maintains or even increases forest carbon stocks over time, while also avoiding emissions from burning fossil fuel. BwB’s modeling showed an initial small emissions increase due to a decline in the amount of carbon stored in forest litter, but large emissions savings over time. In the southeastern U.S., the report said, the time to carbon parity is just three years when forest residues are used for bioenergy.

In a statement, environmental group Birdlife Europe and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said the report “fails to bridge the gap between industry arguments and reality.” The groups cited a 2012 study by the Dogwood Alliance, which said: “There are significant issues related to forest sustainability in this region of the world, where logging is largely unregulated, including the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of water resources and carbon sinks from indiscriminate clearcutting and the widespread conversion of natural forests to plantations.”

The study also claims whole trees are being used in the U.S. to produce wood pellets for export to Europe. It cites RWE Innogy’s plant in Waycross, Georgia, which exports 750,000 tonnes of pellets per year to Europe, as a major offender, quoting a company statement saying “The use of trees as an energy crop fosters the planting of additional forests.” 

RWE says its wood comes from sustainably managed forests and meets criteria set out by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, an independent body which certifies biomass sourcing across the U.S. and Canada. “The SFI programme’s unique fibre sourcing requirements promote responsible forest management on all suppliers’ lands. SFI chain-of-custody (COC) certification tracks the percentage of fibre from certified forests, certified sourcing and post-consumer recycled content,” the group’s website says.

Birdlife and the EEB echoed Smith in noting that, in the U.S., sustainability criteria equivalent to Europe’s are not currently enforced. (There is much less debate over the sustainability of pellets imported from Canada, where forests are largely government-owned.)

At present, draft European biomass sustainability criteria are rather vague, saying only that “It is in the interest of the EU to encourage the development of voluntary national or international schemes” that set sustainability standards. However, the proposal’s specification that “woody raw material should come only from forests that are harvested in a sustainable manner, in accordance with the principles of sustainable forest management developed under international processes such as Forest Europe and implemented through national regulations” may prove problematic for international markets.

It’s clear that Europe needs more biomass than it can produce, and wants what it imports to be sustainable. But until the policy implications of dependence on a large global market and the science behind the “for” and “against” claims are equally clear, the debate will continue to burn.

Lead image: Wood pellets, via Shutterstock