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Europe and Central Asia
6 Oct 2016

The hunt for truly green bioenergy? The EU's renewable energy package

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By Sini Eräjää - BirdLife Europe and Central Asia's EU Bioenergy Policy Officer

At the end of November, the EU will publish its much anticipated Renewable Energy Package. Sini Eräjää explains how the case of bioenergy shows us exactly why this package needs to not only be 'renewable' but also 'sustainable'.

As October turns into November and November into December, the hunt for a truly sustainable energy future for the EU will reach a critical crossroads. Many of us in the NGO community await with bated breath to see which path the EU will take when it publishes its much anticipated Renewable Energy Package towards the end of the year.

This package has been billed as a manifesto for how the EU will stay at the vanguard of a global green energy future. However, whether this energy roadmap will be green or greenwashed will largely depend on the credibility of one key piece of new policy that will be published as part of the package – a policy on the sustainability of bioenergy.

Bioenergy, biofuels, biogas, biomass….it can be hard to get your head around the phonetic jargon. But one thing is for sure – bioenergy currently makes up the vast majority (65%) of the EU’s renewable energy mix. However, as the saying goes ‘All that glitters is not gold’ and, similarly, all that is renewable is not sustainable. Bioenergy is simply not the clean dream we all hoped it would be: it still results in CO2 emissions, and, in some cases, it can even make global warming worse.

“…will the EU’s Renewable Energy Package be Green or Greenwashed?”

To add salt to the wound, government subsidies and incentives have encouraged industries to jump on the bioenergy bandwagon – with alarmingly unsustainable consequences. There are countless horror stories of ‘land grabs’ where land needed to grow diverse food crops has been seized in order to grow biofuels. And while turning organic waste from existing industries (such as forestry) into energy is an entirely sensible use of an otherwise useless by-product, we are now seeing good wood being chopped down simply to be burned. This is the very definition of resource inefficiency in a resource-poor world. 

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Of course, some forms of bioenergy – notably those that find a use for organic waste – are good, when used in moderation. The problem is that the current ‘blank cheque’ approach lumps in the good with the bad and, as a result, turns a potential solution into a problem in itself.

“…bioenergy is simply not the clean dream we all hoped it would be”

This is clearly an area in desperate need of regulation and the EU has been ruminating upon the matter since it first introduced its renewable energy policies back in 2008. In early 2014 the Commission finally confirmed the need for a new policy. As later explained by the Commission, this policy “should deliver robust and verifiable greenhouse gas savings (taking into account land use) and maximize the resource-efficient use of biomass, while guaranteeing the integrity of the internal market.” Whether the Commission is actually able to live up to these promises will be revealed late November/early December.

After so many years of pondering, of investor insecurity and of sheer speculation, the Commission cannot afford to publish a half-hearted proposal. The negative environmental and climate impacts of bioenergy have been made clear and sufficient evidence exists – even confirmed by the Commission’s own studies. Brushing the evidence and concerns aside is simply not an option. The new policy must tackle unsustainable practices head-on and direct the markets towards more sustainable biomass sources.

In September, a group of 11 NGOs, including BirdLife Europe, rallied together to publish concrete recommendations for ‘A New EU Sustainable Bioenergy Policy’. Six key proposals were made:

1.    Adopt an EU-wide limit on the amount of bioenergy used to meet the EU’s 2030 Climate & Energy Targets, including a phase-out of biofuels from food and energy crops.

2.    Exclude high-risk biomass sources (e.g. biomass from protected areas, stumps and roundwood and crops from agricultural land) unless evidence is provided that this enhances environmental conditions. 

3.    Limit the extraction of agricultural and forest residues. 

4.    Ensure that biomass for energy does not displace other existing uses of the biomass and is in line with the principles of ‘cascading use’ and ‘the waste hierarchy’.

5.    Ensure affected communities’ freely give prior and informed consent, respect of their human, labour and land rights in the production and use of biomass for energy.

6.    Introduce a minimum efficiency threshold for energy installations and fuel manufacturing producing bioenergy or biofuels.

The coming months will be crucial: it is vital that the EU turns good intentions into equally good policies. Support us by joining our THUNDERCLAP on the BIOENERGY INTERNATIONAL DAY OF ACTION on 19th October.

Make your voice heard.

Make Europe’s future greener.

 

Sini Eräjää is BirdLife’s EU Bioenergy Policy Officer. To follow developments in this area, check out our blog, EU Bioenergy.

You can also read the full Joint-NGO proposal 'A New Sustainable Bioenergy Policy' here


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.