EU carbon target threatened by biomass ‘insanity’

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EU carbon target threatened by biomass ‘insanity’

Renewable energy targets are driving tree-cutting for biomass energy – and may cause Europe to miss its 2020 carbon target

  •, Monday 2 April 2012 13.43 BST
  • Article history
  • Leith's anti-biomass campaigners outside the Scottish Parliament | picture: Michael MacLeod,

    Anti-biomass campaigners in Scotland. A rush to biomass energy to meet renewable energy targets could actually increase carbon emissions, EU officials warn. Michael MacLeod,

    The EU’s emissions reduction target for 2020 could be facing an unlikely but grave obstacle, according to a growing number of scientists, EU officials and NGOs: the contribution of biomass to the EU’s renewable energy objectives for 2020.

    On 29 March, a call was launched at the European Parliament for Brussels to reconsider its carbon accounting rules for biomass emissions, and EurActiv has learned that the issue is provoking widespread alarm in policy-making circles.

    “We’re paying people to cut their forests down in the name of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and yet we are actually increasing them. No-one is apparently bothering to do any analysis about this,” one Brussels insider told EurActiv.

    “They’re just sleepwalking into this insanity,” he added.

    Around half of the EU’s target for providing 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020 will be made up by biomass energy from sources such as wood, waste and agricultural crops and residues, according to EU member states’ national action plans.

    Wood makes up the bulk of this target and is counted by the EU as ‘carbon neutral’, giving it access to subsidies, feed-in tariffs and electricity premiums at national level.

    But because there is a time lag between the carbon debt that is created when a tree is cut down, transported and combusted – and the carbon credit that occurs when a new tree has grown to absorb as much carbon as the old one – biomass will increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations in the interim.

    “It is wrong to assume that bio-energy is ‘carbon neutral’ by definition, it depends what you replace it with” Professor Detlef Sprinz, a scientist with the European Environmental Agency (EEA) told EurActiv.

    “If you replace a growing forest by energy crops under the current accounting rules of the EU, you may very well increase greenhouse gas emissions.”

    A report last September by the EEA, argued that “legislation that encourages substitution of fossil fuels by bioenergy, irrespective of the biomass source, may even result in increased carbon emissions – thereby accelerating global warming.”

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also says that biomass can only be considered carbon neutral if all land use impacts have been considered first.

    The EU is aware of the issue and a proposal that could impose binding criteria for biomass for energy production, delayed many times, had been expected later this year but may be delayed again.

    Forest-rich Scandinavian countries oppose binding biomass criteria – Finland and Sweden produce 20% and 16% of their energy from biomass – while industrial interests tend to support criteria that ignore combustion emissions and carbon stock losses from burning wood.

    Sustainability criteria are one climate area in which the US leads Europe. The Environmental Protection Agency there has already conducted a public consultation on how to account for emissions from biomass burning, and submitted a legislative proposal.

    Several EU officials spoken to by EurActiv expressed despair at the lack of enthusiasm for tougher accounting rules by the EU’s energy directorate, which holds the biomass portfolio.

    “I don’t think they have any intention of considering the carbon emissions from wood combustion. They are not convinced that it’s an important enough issue,” one said.

    Asked whether the current pattern of biomass production and use would prevent a 20% reduction of carbon emissions by 2020, he replied “the certainty is 100% because there is hardly any [wood-based] biomass that wouldn’t increase emissions. The question is for how long?”

    There are no reliable accounting figures measuring the length of time that Europe will suffer a ‘carbon deficit’ caused by the use of biomass for energy, in particular harvesting timber for that.

    But “the risk of having emissions for too long I think is very high,” the official said. “I see a very significant risk that we will increase emissions for several decades to come.”

    There is consensus that when a carbon deficit extends beyond 30-50 years, it is no longer of use in the EU’s present strategy to decarbonise Europe by 2050.

    One report last month by the US-based Southern Environmental Law Center using woody biomass for a modelled expansion of power generation, found that it would take 35-50 years to provide an ongoing carbon reduction benefit.

    Biomass from composted waste or agricultural residues is a highly efficient way of reducing carbon emissions, but critics say that the EU has vague and ill-conceived definitions of what constitutes residue in many cases.

    It does not, for instance, take into account the impact that removing crop residues such as straw can have in depleting the soil’s carbon stock, with resulting increases in fertiliser and irrigation use, and lower yields.

    Equally, a felled tree instantly produces wood with a higher carbon footprint than coal because burning a 100-year-old tree will release all the carbon it has absorbed into the atmosphere, and it its replacement will take 100 years to reabsorb the same amount of carbon.

    The EU’s current accounting rules do not distinguish between residues or woods used in this way, and more sustainable biomass, terming them both ‘carbon neutral’ without consideration of bio-recovery times .

    “These calculations have just not been done,” an EU source told EurActiv. “No one has looked at this in sufficient seriousness.”


    The debate around biomass has split the environmental movement along unexpected lines. Claude Turmes, the vice-chair of the Green Party in the European Parliament, was instrumental in negotiating the original Renewable Energy Directive, which included biomass. He told EurActiv that the debate around carbon accounting rules was “not black and white”.

    “If you don’t take trees out of a forest at a certain moment, the carbon balance will stabilise and even become negative so removing some trees does not damage the overall capacity of the forest to capture CO2. Of course we are also promoting cascade-using, so we should use stems for furniture and paper and pulp and use the byproducts of tehse for production and energy. That is already the case today and should be improved.”

    “You have to bear in mind that if wood is replacing coal then it can have a more positive CO2 contribution because new trees fix carbon again,” he went on. “Burning stems should however stay the exception. Cascade use of biomass is where the EU has to go to.”

    But another Green MEP, Bas Eickhout, had a different take. “There are good scientific reasons to distinguish between infinite renewable sources – like wind and solar and hydro on the one hand – and biomass, which is like fossil fuels but on a shorter rotation time,” he told EurActiv. “It makes good sense to distinguish between the two and with the renewables target, we’re dedicating half to biomass which isn’t thought through.”

    But Filip de Jaeger, the secretary general of the European Confederation of Woodworking Industries echoed many of Turmes points. “We have a principle of cascade use, where you first use the wood for products and then have a reuse or recycling phase because you can use old wood material for biomass,” he said. “It is only at the end of their lifecycle that the energy is then released so the timespan of use is much longer.”

    “I wouldn’t argue that you always have a strong carbon debt risk,” he continued. “It also depends on the soil and the way that the logging is being done. In some cases we have a situation where growing [older] trees that no longer continue storing carbon [is less effective] that growing new ones in younger plantations that will pick up more carbon from the atmosphere. So it is not a black and white situation.”

    Ariel Brunner, the head of EU policy for Birdlife, a conservation organisation disputed Turmes and de Jaeger’s arguments head on. It was “partially true” that mature forests became saturated and stopped absorbing carbon, he said. “But it is beside the point. If you’re moving carbon into the atmosphere faster than you take it out, you’re causing more climate change. Young forests capture carbon at a faster rate than older ones, but older forests have more carbon locked into them. That’s what matters.”

    The EU was not properly promoting cascade use either he said. “We think that cascade use is absolutely crucial but it is only happening very, very partially through EU legislation which is poorly implemented,” he explained. “We are seeing a lot of energy production from virgin forests and a lot of paper or wood waste is not being recovered or recycled. There has actually been a decrease in separate collections of organic waste and more going into incineration and landfill.”

    Replacing coal with wood caused a problem in terms of “the length of the carbon debt,” he added. “We all agree that if you replace coal with bio-energy, you’ll get a benefit in the long term – but how long is the long term? If it is five years it is a good idea. If its 500 years, it is making things worse. If it is 30 years, we can have a discussion, but we have to reduce emissions in the coming three to four decades, anything more than that is a big problem.”

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