Europe and Central Asia
9 Apr 2015

Why the Emission Trading Scheme damages nature

Oilseed rape crop © FLPA
By Sini Erajaa

ETS falsely considers all bioenergy to be good for the climate. But the truth is that burning biomass creates emissions and does very little to tackle climate change. BirdLife Europe calls on the European Commission to re-assess the zero-rating policy of biomass.

Imagine a grassland rich in diverse life with flowers, butterflies and birds. Imagine that grassland being ploughed and covered in pesticides to enhance the yield of a maize field. Why? It's not because corn has become popular. It's because according to current EU policies, the corn (biomass) that will be used for the production of energy is "carbon neutral". And the same goes for that wood being cut down to be burnt as pellets in some power plant. Incredibly, these are considered “carbon neutral” in Europe.

The Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) is supposed to be the EU’s key tool to tackle climate change by putting a price on carbon emitted and pushing for a transition to low carbon technologies. But even though cutting emissions is the goal, a staggering 90-150 million tons of CO2 emitted each year by power plants included in the ETS are completely unaccounted for. How is this possible? It’s because these emissions arise from bioenergy, which is wrongly accounted for in the ETS.

In the current ETS scheme, emissions arising from the burning of biomass have inaccurately been given a zero rating. This has created an enticing incentive to use biomass as an energy source. At a current ETS price of €7 per ton of CO2, this incentive equals from €630 million to €1 billion annually. In 2012, the EU consumed about 86.5 million tons of oil equivalents of biomass for heating and electricity. A new study from Transport & Environment, BirdLife Europe and the European Environmental Bureau, reveals that at least half of this biomass was consumed in EU ETS-regulated installations, meaning huge amounts of unaccounted CO2 emissions.

Science has already made it clear that the belief that biomass burning creates zero emissions is totally false. Instead, GHG emissions arising from bioenergy use range from negligible to sometimes even more than those coming from the burning of fossil fuels, depending on the sort and origin of biomass that is being burned. Still, as it currently stands, the ETS considers all biomass to be good for the climate and a tool to help us fight climate change.

On a shorter term, although renewable energies are part of the solution to climate change, they can only play a positive role if they do not cause other significant environmental harm. That is, we can achieve an energy transition in a nature friendly way, but only if we put the right policy incentives in place. Growing bioenergy has posed many challenges, and has not been the promised silver bullet. It has placed high demand on our land and forests. More logging, ploughing of natural grasslands and intensive agriculture, have been driven by a hunger for bioenergy incentivized by policies like the ETS. Specifically, the combination of feed in tariffs and ETS have been fueling a boom in the use of wood pellets for electricity production that has been linked to destruction of precious swamp forests and their threatened birds in the US.

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The European Commission is now reviewing ETS legislation post 2020 and has just closed a consultation on this matter. BirdLife Europe has called on the Commission to re-assess this zero-rating policy of biomass in the EU ETS directive so it actually aligns with scientific facts. We need a thorough review of EU’s climate and energy policies so that our efforts to fight climate change are not at the expense of our valuable ecosystems. And our birds.

Yes our birds, because climate change is not just a disaster for people and nature, it is also a bird issue. The Audubon Society (BirdLife partner in the US) has estimated that 314 North American bird species could become climate-threatened or climate-endangered. Birds need specific habitats to survive, and so will be adversely affected by future projections of climate change.

If we are hiding our true GHG emissions, we are truly failing to tackle climate change. Ignoring, potentially, 90-150 million tons of CO2 emissions is an error we simply cannot afford.  

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.