According to the EU member states national action plans around half of the EU’s target for providing 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020 will be made up by biomass energy (EU Forest Strategy). This comes from sources like wood, waste and agricultural crops and residues. Wood makes up the biggest part of this target and is according to the EU ‘carbon neutral’. This gives it access to subsidies, feed-in tariffs and other political mechanisms to promote the use of it.
According to Professor Detlef Sprinz, the chairman of the independent scientific committee advising the European Environment Agency, it is wrong to assume that bio-energy is 'carbon neutral' by definition, it depends what you replace it with. Despite this all the bioenergy is counted as zero-carbon inside the European Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).
Burning of biomass always releases carbon dioxide, which always causes warming. Depending on the type of biomass and the observed timescale, the effect on the climate be smaller or larger. Burning sawdust causes a small impact while chopping up and burning roundwood has a larger impact. There is no difference made because both is accounted as zero emission.
The ETS has a certain fixed amount of emission rights. If someone does not use their right to emit, it can be sold for someone else to use. So when coal is replaced with biomass, the total amount of emissions allowances in the ETS does not change, but on top of that, we also get the emissions from the biomass (which is counted as zero-carbon).
The conflict is between the European Union that tries to reach its targets and international agreements and environmental NGO’s that try to reduce carbon emissions. Unlike current European policies, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and its panel of scientific advisors have all recognized that bioenergy cannot be assumed to be theoretical carbon neutral (EU bioenergy).
Evaluation of the conflict
The evidence is clear that European policies have been based on flawed assumptions concerning bioenergy emissions, but admitting mistakes and correcting policies is never pleasant, neither for policy makers nor investors. The Commission must recognise 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.
The EU already made a commitment to cut public support for first generation biofuels after 2020. But still some changes have to be made in the new European Commission’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED II).
- No subsidies for risky sources of biomass
- Only use biomass in the most energy efficient installations
- No targets for advanced biofuels without real emission savings
- Completely phase out land based biofuels
- Emissions reduction criteria must fully recognise the climate impact of bioenergy
In the coming period, the European Commission will work on several policies relating to whether and to what extent bioenergy, and thus wood, can be part of the EU’s energy mix.
EU Forest Strategy, COM (2013) 659 final.