Europe and Central Asia
19 Nov 2015

Using bioenergy may not be as green as it seems

Harvesting forests for biofuel releases emissions and decreases carbon stocks. Photo: Wagner T. Cassimiro 'Aranha'/Flickr
By Sini Erajaa

The headlines ahead of the Paris climate summit have been all about the lack of ambition, percentages, gigatonnes and pledges to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But the facts behind the numbers and pledges have gained much less attention. These are important to know so that we can actually reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and not just pretend or claim to be doing so.

Emissions and their reductions in energy production, transport and industrial processes are fairly well documented and known. The picture is less clear when it comes to emissions GHGs from land, forests, wetlands and their management because how these emissions are accounted for varies to great extent and they are not even always included in the pledges and efforts of countries to cut emissions.

There is a particularly dangerous loophole when it comes to the use of bioenergy (i.e. the use of plants and trees for energy). While greater harvesting of forests to burn wood for energy might mean less polluting fossil fuels, it also means decreased carbon stocks in forests. The clearing of carbon-rich areas like grasslands and forests for agriculture or plantations to produce bioenergy also releases emissions. There’s also the risk of increasing emissions because we need more biomass than fossil fuels to produce a unit of energy.

So far, the EU is heavily relying on bioenergy to mitigate climate change: 60% of the EU’s renewables are bioenergy, and renewables are expected to deliver around 40% of the EU’s current emission savings.

If in the future, these impacts are not taken fully into account in emission reduction commitments and counting countries’ GHG savings, there’s a risk of just shifting emissions around from one sector to the other rather than reducing them. A recent report by Climate Central called this phenomenon Pulp Fiction – the European accounting error that’s warming the planet.

While the full extent of the accounting error on bioenergy hasn’t been exhaustively estimated, there are some worrying indicators. A study commissioned by BirdLife Europe and others suggests that the use of wood energy in the EU by 2030 will created an additional 100-150 million tonnes of annual CO2 emissions over a 20-year period. This is equal to the annual GHG reductions by the EU during the last decade. Modelling done by the Natural Resource Defence Council shows that wood pellets (made in the US southeast and exported to Europe) will emit more carbon than fossil fuels at least for 50 years.

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When it comes to the use of conventional biofuels used in transport and made out of crops, it’s been estimated by the IEEP that it has resulted in 50-83 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year till 2020.

We need to start thinking seriously about the role bioenergy should play in solving climate change. As a leader in modern bioenergy use, the EU once again has the responsibility to make sure that this accounting error won’t end up causing the very global warming we are trying to halt. That is why BirdLife, with a group of NGOs, is calling the EU to put forward sustainability measures for the use of all bioenergy in Europe.

It is also important that not only all the different sectors – from energy production to land – are appropriately covered and accounted for in the EU’s climate policy, but also that safeguards are applied to stop us from shifting emissions around. As the drivers and incentives for growing the use of bioenergy are set through energy policies (through various incentives and subsidies for renewable energy) we need conditions in place for these policies so that only bioenergy that actually delivers GHG savings is used.

So as the world gears up to (hopefully) agree on a new climate deal in Paris, we need to make sure we have the right rules in place to guarantee that actual emission savings, not just moving emissions around or delivering empty numbers and pledges. 

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.