Bioenergy – a carbon accounting time bomb
Two new independent scientific studies commissioned by BirdLife International, the European Environmental Bureau and Transport and Environment cast further doubt on the EU's policy of promoting biomass as fuel for heat and power generation, and biofuels for transport.
The first study, carried out by Joanneum Research, identifies a major flaw in the way carbon savings from forest-derived biomass are calculated in EU law as well as under UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol mechanisms. It concludes that harvesting trees for energy creates a 'carbon debt': the carbon contained in the trees is emitted upfront while trees grow back over many years. The true climate impact of so-called woody biomass in the short to medium term can, as a result, be worse than the fossil fuels it is designed to replace.
"The EU is taking out a sub-prime carbon mortgage that it may never be able to pay back. Biomass policy needs to be fixed before this regulatory failure leads to an ecological crisis that no bail out will ever fix", commented Ariel Brunner, Head of EU Policy at BirdLife International.
The second study, by CE Delft, examines the full climate impact of the main biofuels used in Europe. In particular it looked at the impact of the expansion of agricultural land into environmentally sensitive areas when food production is displaced by fuel crops, a process known as indirect land use change (ILUC).
The report, based on analysis of several EU Commission-sponsored research projects and other international model studies, found that most current biofuels are as bad as fossil fuels for the climate once ILUC is taken into consideration. The study proposes concrete ways of correcting current greenhouse gas balance calculations to fully account for indirect land use change related emissions.
"The EU is taking out a sub-prime carbon mortgage that it may never be able to pay back" —Ariel Brunner, Head of EU Policy at the BirdLife International European Division
"As long as the EU refuses to take the full climate impacts of biofuels into account, its climate strategy for transport is doomed to failure", said Nuša Urbancic, Policy Officer at Transport & Environment, the sustainable transport campaigners.
"If left unchanged, biomass for energy policy will soon be in the same dire and confused state as biofuel policy is today", added Pieter de Pous, Senior Policy Officer at the European Environmental Bureau. "This can be avoided if the Commission and industry are ready to face up to these facts and develop the necessary measures that will ensure bioenergy policy will actually make a positive contribution to fighting climate change."
Together, current EU policy on biomass and biofuels risks severe environmental impacts across the globe, and a carbon debt that could take centuries to pay off.
The three groups are calling on the EU to come forward with mandatory sustainability criteria for biomass and to incorporate indirect land use change calculations into the existing sustainability criteria for biofuels and to incorporate indirect land-use change and carbon-debt calculations into sustainability criteria for biofuels and bioenergy.
Download the full report here.
Download the Joanneum Research study here.
Bergsma G. C., Croezen H. J., Otten M. B. J. & van Valkengoed M.P.J., Biofuels: indirect land use change and climate impact, Delft, CE Delft, June 2010.
Download the CE Delft study here.
Bird N., Pena N. & Zanchi J., The upfront carbon debt of bioenergy, Graz, Joanneum Research, June 2010.
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Credits: BirdLife European Division