Bioenergy is seen as an important part of Europe’s transition to a ‘green energy’ future, yet evidence of its negative impact on climate and biodiversity continues to mount.
On the surface, bioenergy might appear to be a safe option in the energy transition due to its reputation as the traditional renewable energy source. However, three things should constrain its future: negative environmental impacts, competition with other uses in the resource market, and the fall in prices of other renewables.
Currently the European Union is trying to address the first problem with sustainability criteria in a new proposal for Renewable Energy Directive (RED II), but the proposal lacks effective safeguards for biomass. If the EU’s renewable energy policy is going to succeed in mitigating climate change and safeguarding biodiversity, key changes are needed.
The competing demands for wood and wood waste (biomass) are already intense. Bioenergy produced on agricultural lands competes with land demands for food production, and forest bioenergy competes with other forest products such as building material, chemicals, or pulp. In both cases, the alternative uses for the land produce resources that cannot be compensated by other materials and these products are often of higher value than the bioenergy that replaces them. However, EU and member state subsidies are distorting the competition.
The falling prices of other renewables such as wind, solar, and geothermal energy will also limit the future potential for bioenergy, as their cost efficiency begins to outstrip the projections for these competing forms of energy production.
According to a recent study by the independent researchers CE Delft, the European Commission has been overestimating the future potential of bioenergy. The total share of bioenergy in the EU’s renewable energy mix will decrease from 60 per cent in 2014 to 46 per cent in 2030, and the growth of non-bioenergy is significantly larger than bioenergy.
Energy transition aims to mitigate climate change
The energy transition is about replacing fossil fuels with new energy sources that have less impact on the climate. However, renewable energy sources also have climate impacts that can arise from their production.
Biomass releases about the same amount of carbon during combustion as fossil fuels, yet has a lower energy content. This means that to produce the same amount of energy, biomass produces a greater quantity of emissions than fossil fuels.
Whether carbon emitted during the production of bioenergy is compensated by future growth of biomass depends on many factors, and in some cases this bioenergy can be more polluting than fossil fuels. Some feedstocks, like roundwood and stumps, pose a higher risk to the climate than others. Therefore, bioenergy should not be treated as carbon neutral.
Good intentions gone bad
The current and anticipated usage of bioenergy has raised serious concerns about climate, biodiversity, and the rights of local communities.
To meet the EU’s targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy, governments are providing subsidies for the expansion of biomass burning in large power plants. As a result, almost half of the harvested wood biomass in Europe is used for energy. This has driven over-harvesting and even deforestation in some European countries – including Slovakia and Romania – both of which rely on biomass for about 70% of their renewable energy. This threatens the biodiversity of forests in the region and, as outlined above, the climate benefits are highly dubious.
In France, the conversion of a power station in Gardanne has been a source of controversy due to the cost as well as the impact on local forests. French electricity consumers will subsidize the biomass plant at a rate of 70 million euros per year for the next 20 years – a total of 1.4 billion euros. There is also a timber war in the region, with a surplus of competing demands for wood. The conflict has led to the plant importing nearly three-quarters of its biomass from abroad, which negatively affects the forests in those countries.
Drax power stations in the UK serves a tenth of the country’s electricity needs. Previously a coal plant, the station is being converted to biomass and has become the largest biomass-burning power plant in the world. A study in 2014 by scientists at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) estimated that under a worst-case scenario in which the logged forest land was converted to agriculture rather than being replanted with trees, burning biomass at Drax would emit two to three times more CO₂ than coal.
Even with prompt planting, new trees take between 35 and 100 years to grow and carbon-fix the equivalent amount of CO2 created through burning harvested tress. This means that the rate of global warming will increase during the period between the planting and maturation of these newly planted trees. In addition, the harvesting process negatively impacts forest biodiversity – the Southern US forests previously untouched by logging are considered one of the worlds biodiversity hotspots.
In Finland, the rate and intensity of forest harvesting is planned to increase in order to supply new refineries for liquid biofuels and other bioproducts. With the reliance on forest bioenergy in Finland’s new energy strategy, there is greater attention to the remnants of typical forest harvesting and their potential usage. These residues include stumps and small trees that have not previously been commercially relevant.
Forest biodiversity in Finland is also under threat, with 59 species extinct from Finnish forests due to the forest industry. Due to intensive management, the percentage of natural forests in Southern Finland is only 1-2 %. Stump collection decreases the quantity of decaying wood, a material on which many species rely. And this increased harvesting will not bring climate benefits for decades, as warned by 68 scientists in an open letter released March 24, 2017.
If Member States were to use biomass according to their renewable energy plans, by 2020 the amount of wood used for energy alone would be equivalent to today’s total EU wood harvest, states the EU Forest Strategy. This is simply not sustainable. Across Europe, the problems of burning biomass for energy on an industrial scale are becoming clearer.
You can get it right
Bioenergy is not only about the bad and the ugly: there are good options available. These are based on minimizing the impact on land and competing uses, like higher value wood products and chemicals. EU policy must abandon unsustainable practices and promote good ones.
Biogas that is produced from organic waste in a system where the remaining material can be utilized in fertilization has multiple benefits for the circular economy: it promotes re-use and zero waste while keeping products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value. Biogas can also be obtained from community wastewater.
To promote efficient resource use bioenergy should be the last link in the chain of circular economy. Europe should make more from less for longer.
There is no sustainability without strong safeguards
At the end of 2016 the European Commission published a proposal for a new Renewable Energy Directive. The sustainability criteria for biomass were gravely disappointing, as the constraints put in place to correct current misuses are highly unlikely to generate positive change.
The EU must recognize that bioenergy can only ever play a limited role in meeting EU energy demands, that some particularly damaging sources of bioenergy should be entirely excluded from industrial use, and the rest must only be used in the most energy-efficient power plants. There is a dire need to stop subsidizing the burning of round wood, stumps and dead wood as well as agricultural food crops.
Now is the time to fix the EU’s renewable energy policy so that it has a chance to achieve what it is intended for: having a positive impact on climate, the environment, and people’s wellbeing.
Hanna Aho works as climate and forest campaigner at Fern. She has a Masters in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Helsinki, Finland. Previously she has worked at Finnish government institutions and as a climate policy officer for the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation.
Fern is a non-governmental organization (NGO) keeping track of the European Union’s involvement in forests and coordinating NGO activities at the European level. Fern’s work centers on forests and forest peoples’ rights and the issues that affect them, such as trade and investment and climate change.