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Renewable energy must deliver emission reductions

Sini Eräjää

It is imperative that we start thinking seriously about the role bioenergy should play in tackling climate change, writes Sini Eräjää.

The European Union’s strategy to fight climate change and reduce emissions relies heavily on the deployment of renewable energy and for good reasons. Indeed, the European Commission estimates that about 40% of the emissions reductions achieved by the EU are thanks to the deployment of renewable energy. But this figure is only meaningful if all renewable energy creates zero carbon emissions and in the case of many forms of bioenergy this is almost certainly not the case.

More than half of the assumed emission reductions from renewable energies rely on bioenergy, meaning the burning of trees, plants and their different parts for energy. One of mankind’s oldest forms of energy and fitting well within the existing energy infrastructure based on burning fossil fuels in tanks and installations, bioenergy has been a fairly easy and attractive choice for many member states wanting to claim that they are acting to tackle climate change and reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

But increasing the use of forests and land is not straightforward in a world where ever greater quantities of food are needed to feed a growing global population and where many ecosystems are already experiencing severe degradation.

More than five million hectares of agricultural land in Europe are already being used to produce crops for bioenergy that is used as fuel in transport. Maize for biogas is produced on another couple of hectares. The Commission predicts that by 2030 a colossal seven million hectares more - an area almost the size of the Czech Republic - will be needed to grow different kinds of energy crops.

For forests, increased demand for wood from the energy sector comes on top of other growing demands and is leading to increased harvesting, the potential expansion of harvesting to new areas and the displacement of certain current uses of wood. For example, in some places residues from the saw milling industry are being used for energy rather than to make panels as is traditionally the case. Indeed, research suggests that demand for wood will exceed the sustainable wood supply from European forests by 2020.

Increased use of land and forests has direct implications on the potential of bioenergy to deliver emission savings. Greater harvesting means decreased carbon stocks in forests. If the harvesting levels are increased on a long-term basis, the carbon stocks will never have the chance to recover. The clearing of carbon-rich areas like grasslands and forests for agriculture or plantations also create emissions that will no longer be recovered.

It is both timely and imperative as the world gears up to agree a new global climate deal in December that we start thinking seriously about the role bioenergy should play in tackling climate change.

Safeguards required

We believe that the best way this can be achieved in Europe is through an EU-wide system of legally binding safeguards. Currently, most bioenergy used in Europe can be produced without complying with any kinds of safeguards. This puts a big shadow of uncertainty over the true emission savings and environmental benefits of increased bioenergy use. And given that this use is driven by EU policies designed to cut emissions and protect the environment, closer scrutiny is justified.

Only in the transport sector has there been an attempt to put in place limited safeguards for biofuels. But following a severe lobby push from the agriculture and biofuel industry these safeguards are undermined by loopholes, and most biofuels used today in the EU still demand an increase in prime agricultural land.

We, along with other environmental NGOs, are therefore campaigning for the share of bioenergy in the EU’s renewable energy mix to be limited to a level that does not increase the EU’s ecological footprint and secures emissions reductions in a time-scale relevant to solving climate change. Further, they should only be allowed to be produced in line with robust safeguards - this means focusing more on waste and residues, hence, biomass we are already harvesting, and for which there is no other and more efficient use.

This kind of genuinely sustainable bioenergy can be part of the EU’s renewable energy mix and, if the Commission draws the right conclusions from existing policies, it should form the backbone of the EU executive’s new sustainability policy for all bioenergy that is promised as part of the 2030 climate and energy framework.

We cannot afford another failed effort to tackle climate change. The Commission’s proposals on bioenergy must therefore be credible and have the potential to stand the test of time. They need to tackle head on the genuine sustainability concerns related to bioenergy by addressing the following concerns: regulating the overall volume of biomass used for energy, particularly that taken directly from land and forests; ensuring efficient use of this biomass; calculating actual carbon emissions; and mitigating damage to biodiversity and ecosystems.

Only if all these aspects are addressed and managed through an EU-wide legally binding instrument can Europe genuinely claim to be leading on climate action and not merely relying on false accounting to shore up its emissions reductions.


Sini Eräjää is EU Bioenergy Policy Officer for BirdLife Europe and the European Environmental Bureau.


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