An end seems to have come to the never ending story of the EU sustainability of forest biomass, says Xavier Noyon from PEFC, and it was well worth the wait.

The whole EU forest public affairs community has been expecting it for years, one could say for decades, and now, it’s here. On 30th November 2016, the European Commission released its proposal for an EU framework for forest biomass as a sustainable source of energy. This is only one element of the massive “Clean Energy For All Europeans” package, more commonly referred to as the “Winter Package”, but is surely the single most important piece of legislation coming from the EU for the forest based industries since, let’s say the EUTR in 2013. One could argue that the recast of the Renewable Energy Directive will have an enormous impact on the whole forest based value chain, I certainly wouldn’t disagree.

Stakeholders of all kinds seemed to think, without doubt, that it was a crucial debate. I have seldom experienced such heated discussions between parties whose vision on the matter were so different. Leading environmental NGOs, such as Birdlife and FERN, questioned the very nature of forest products as a renewable energy source (are they really carbon neutral?) while some of the public and private foresters argued that not only their sustainable forest management practices guarantee sustainability, but also that only Member States should have competencies on forestry related issues.

There has been a previous attempt to regulate the issue that had been put to death before its publication a few years ago. The debate on liquid biofuels of agricultural origin had been so negative back then, that this time around, the Commission and its President decided to assign this “hot” file to the Secretariat General of the Commission rather than to the Directorate General on Energy, which is normally the case. Apparently, even within the Commission, ENVI, AGRI, and ENER took opposing positions using their own reports to support their views.

But, finally, the proposition is there.

So as to be considered sustainable, the forest biomass must come from a country or region that

– implements the general principles of sustainable forest management (SFM) at a national level;

– and, adheres to LULUCF policies and carbon accounting per the Paris Agreement (carbon emission criteria).

In addition, the transformation from forest biomass into energy must generate Greenhouse Gas (GHG) savings compared to when using fossil fuel.

Photo by David Dodge, Green Energy Futures

Only production units with a capacity of 20 megawatts and above must comply. This represents, according to the EU biomass industry association (AEBIOM), nearly 75% of the biomass consumption in the EU. The Member States can decide whether they wish to lower the threshold. The operators of the energy plants, who are using biomass, are responsible to demonstrate that they have a process in place that can carry out a “risk assessment” on the two points above and that there are GHG savings, using the calculation method provided by the Directive. This process should be audited by third parties.

The operator has always the possibility to demonstrate that he respects the SFM- and the carbon management criteria at forest holding level, whether his “risk assessment” is negative, or, because he so chooses. It goes without saying that these criteria apply to the biomass consumed in the EU, regardless whether it concerns imported biomass or whether it originates from EU forests.

The Member States are responsible for managing the operators and will report back to the Commission on how they implement the Directive. They are also encouraged by its text to put in place national sustainability schemes. The mutual recognition should prevail which means that once the forest biomass is declared sustainable in one EU country, it should be accepted as such in the whole EU Internal Market.

A few points are at best unclear, when not clearly incoherent, for example, the disposition on mutual recognition and that member states can impose further sustainability criteria. However, in general the proposal has been deemed as pragmatic by different parties. The proposed framework has also been careful not to step too much upon the different competencies of the Member States.

Like any good compromise, nobody is entirely satisfied, but, it’s clear that the environmental NGOs are the least satisfied of all stakeholders. Will they be able to achieve significant changes in Parliament which is the next step? And will the next 18 to 24 months bring us an answer? Hopefully yes. This is the time frame for the final adoption of a directive after the initial proposal of the Commission, which means that we have plenty of time to discuss the subject again.

Writer: Xavier Noyon, EU Affairs PEFC International