Europe and Central Asia
20 Feb 2012

New study casts doubt on climate credentials and sustainability of US wood in meeting Europe’s demand for energy biomass

By BirdLife Europe

A major increase in imports of wood fuel to Europe from the US could do more harm than good for our environment, a new report has revealed. Burning wood pellets – or biomass – in European power stations is playing an increasing part in the efforts to reach the EU renewable energy target. Burning wood is also considered carbon neutral under the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), allowing power companies that switch from fossil fuel to wood to make a profit by selling their emission allowances to other operators that will use them to burn more fossil fuel. Large subsidies are on offer in many member states, and by 2020 it is predicted that 94.3 Mtoe of solid biomass will be used for electricity generation and for heating and cooling in the EU. This will lead to a huge surge in both use and imports of fuel wood into the EU. Power stations will rely mainly on imports, and a significant amount is expected to come from the USA. But a major new report released by US conservation groups, the National Wildlife Federation and Southern Environmental Law Center, has found that although biomass power is being promoted as a carbon neutral energy source, it will take, in the case of wood from the American south-east, up to 40 years for felled forests to regrow and absorb the carbon emissions produced. Climate scientists warn that emission cuts need to happen now, so that global emissions peak by 2020, otherwise we face dangerous climate tipping points. This casts a shadow over the usefulness of an energy source that increases emissions over the period in which emission reductions are vital. The National Wildlife Federation highlighted the fact that the Southeastern US has an ideal growing season and fast tree growth, but despite this, it still takes too long for trees to regrow and to recapture carbon released during burning, to justify using mature trees to generate electricity. The Southern Environmental Law Center commented that, the amount of wood readily available for bioenergy in the Southeastern US, is clearly limited. So, the projected demand from the UK for wood pellets to fuel its own bioenergy industry will compound environmental problems and negatively impact wildlife and the climate. The new report provides new evidence for the urgent need to include sustainability criteria and appropriate carbon accounting in the EU policy promoting renewable energy. Under current policies, half of our portfolio of renewable energy is made with biomass, and evidence is rapidly gathering that it could increase our emissions instead of reducing them. Moreover, the huge increase in biomass harvesting (in Europe and imports) is increasing pressure on forests and other natural habitats, threatening biodiversity and ecosystems health. BirdLife Europe thinks that Europe must decarbonise its economy and calls upon the European Commission to urgently introduce sustainability standards for biomass and to address the issue of carbon debt to ensure carbon emissions from biomass are properly accounted for. They must also make radical changes to policies such as the ETS to ensure that biomass is only used when it contributes to meeting the EU climate targets and does not undermine other targets such as reversing the decline of biodiversity. Read and download the report "Biomass supply and Carbon Accounting for Southeastern Forests”, produced by BERC (Biomass Energy Resource Center), Forest Guild and Spatial Informatics Group (SIG), here.

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