Europe and Central Asia
1 Jun 2016

How the EU can achieve sustainable bioenergy

Biofuels in the east German countryside. © Dan Zelazo/Flickr
By Sini Erajaa

After many years of contemplation, the moment for the EU to decide on how to regulate bioenergy use is approaching. In early May, the European Commission closed a public consultation for a new bioenergy sustainability policy and held a conference to listen to what stakeholders had to say.

BirdLife and its partners have been on the frontline of calling for a change in Europe’s use of bioenergy. But it’s not only civil society organisations that are interested in the new policy. According to the Commission, the consultation received 950 responses from various interest groups, authorities and Member States. In addition, the Commission received more than 57.000 emails from concerned citizens, (especially from the US) that called on the Commission to stop damaging forests for bioenergy.   

Few will argue against the fact that bioenergy needs to be ‘sustainable’, but there is more than one meaning of the term. So what are the sustainability issues?

First, current policies at national and EU levels have not been enough to address all the negative impacts arising from growing bioenergy use. For example, in the case of biofuels and the transport sector, it’s clear that renewable energy targets (currently at 10% for 2020) should be scrapped because the target has only driven the use of unsustainable food-based biofuels. These have been capped and limited until 2020, but they must be phased out entirely after 2020.

For the rest of bioenergy, a whole set of policy measures are urgently needed because none exist. BirdLife and other NGOs recognize that while there are positive opportunities, and that bioenergy has a role to play in Europe’s energy mix, the new policy must clearly separate the good from the bad.

The bad includes biomass taken from food and energy (non-food) crops grown on agricultural land, and biomass taken directly from forests. Less risky sources include some bio-based industrial and municipal wastes, and to a limited extent, agricultural and forestry residues. 

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But sticking to these low environmental risk sources implies that sustainable biomass is limited by availability, so NGOs have called for a cap on the total amount of bioenergy allowed in the renewable energy mix. They also stress that more sustainable bioenergy needs to be produced in an efficient way, i.e., it should be used to produce both heat and electricity, rather than just the latter.

These key asks by NGOs highlight the fact that the sustainability challenges of bioenergy go beyond the existing challenges of sustainable forestry or agriculture. Major challenges like ensuring biomass use actually contributes to greenhouse gas savings and that the limited biomass resources available are used in a smart and resource- efficient way cannot be solved through “sustainable forest management” or “sustainable agriculture”. Good wood material or crops too valuable to be burned directly should be used for food and more long-lived products.

Civil society has therefore largely rejected that idea that just by focusing on sustainable forest management (or agriculture), the sustainability of bioenergy can be guaranteed. Instead, we are calling for direct measures that exclude biomass sources with high environmental, climate and social risks from receiving financial support from renewable energy policies.

This implies that the starting point should be no further expansion in the use of agricultural land for energy production, no use of roundwood or stumps from forests, no use of biomass from protected areas and areas with high biodiversity value or carbon stocks, limits to the extraction of harvesting residues in forestry and agriculture, no growing of invasive alien species and minimum efficiency requirements in energy installations.

While in some cases the harvesting of biomass in protected areas or harvesting of whole trees can be done for biodiversity conservation purposes and are beneficial for the environment, these are the exception rather than the rule.

By letting bioenergy play a role in the European energy mix and securing investments for sustainable bioenergy, the Commission now has a chance to set a clear direction for the new policy. Continuing to ignore the sustainability concerns put on the table or addressing them in an insufficient way will not provide the future direction bioenergy needs.

Read BirdLife Europe’s consultation response on bioenergy 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. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.