EU biomass policy: from denial to action
As the streets and corridors of Brussels were slowing down and luggage for holidays was being filled up over the last days of July, the European Commission finally found the courage to publish its new assessment of the sustainability of bioenergy in the EU. Not surprisingly, due to the timing of the launch, the report on ‘State of Play on Sustainability of Solid and Gaseous Biomass’ did not draw much attention. Nevertheless, it gives a good indication on the direction that the bioenergy industry should be taking.
In a nutshell, the report recognises the sustainability risks related to growing bioenergy use in the EU, but fails to propose any measures to stop these risks from further materialising. Serious concerns raised by BirdLife Europe, other NGOs and scientists regarding the growing pressure on arable land, failure to truly deliver greenhouse gas savings, and degradation of forests, have been all finally recognized by the Commission. Even so, the problems are downplayed and action is still not taken.
The report recognises that bioenergy from stumps and from trees harvested only for energy could lead to negligible GHG savings (or even emissions) when changes in the carbon stocks of forests and soil are accounted for. Most GHG accounting methods still ignore these emissions and still, even with the flawed GHG accounting methods used by the Commission today, biogas from maize and most wood pellets imported from outside the EU don’t meet the recommended 70% GHG savings.
Inaction is justified by the fact that most bioenergy is still assumed to deliver GHG savings but no calculations, numbers, or reference is provided to back up this assumption. A recent study by BirdLife Europe, the European Environmental Bureau and Transport & Environment suggests that biogenic emissions from woody bioenergy that currently go unaccounted for could be as big as the EU’s claimed annual GHG savings (around 100 MtCO2eq/year), an amount which is far from insignificant.
On other aspects of sustainability the Commission seems confident that existing legislation and EU action such as the EU Forest Strategy, Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and its Rural Development funding are sufficient. But when BirdLife and partners have for example been raising concerns about unsustainable bioenergy projects in the national Rural Development Plans, the response has not been too encouraging and it’s been left unclear how the Commission intends to respond. Not having any EU legislation for the sustainability of bioenergy in place surely doesn’t make the job any easier.
Even if the Commission report announced that no new legal action affecting the 2020 climate and energy goals will be taken, the problems regarding the sustainability of bioenergy have been put on the table. The new 2030 climate and energy policies will have to take into account the issue of true sustainability of bioenergy.
As the Commission puts it: ”For the post-2020 period an improved biomass policy will be developed in order to maximize the climate and resource efficiency benefits of biomass in the wider bioeconomy, while delivering robust and verifiable GHG emission savings and minimising the risks of unintended environmental impacts”. It’ll be up to the new Commissioners to ensure that the new improved biomass policy will deliver what has been promised.
No doubt can remain however that the EU approach to supporting bioenergy is in for an overhaul. At this point, the writing has been clearly traced on the wall. Bioenergy companies, and financial operators investing in them, would be making a serious mistake if they ignored it. Unsustainable bioenergy schemes that look like easy money today will soon become dead ends. The sorry state of the EU biofuels industry should serve as a cautionary tale.
For further information, please contact Sini Erajaa, Bioenergy Policy Officer at BirdLife Europe