EU biomass rules could ‘increase emissions’, say advisors to European Commission

Posted on May, 28 2018

“This is a damning report from the very experts the Commission hired to help it develop its proposals
The EU’s biomass plans could lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, warns a new report from the same UK government agency which helped the European Commission develop its original bioenergy proposals.

The new report argues that the proposed EU Renewable Energy Directive, which is currently being finalised, contains hardly any of the biomass sustainability criteria that are needed to reduce emissions. This means that increased bioenergy use would likely increase emissions and harm the climate, rather than protect it.

Alex Mason, Senior Policy Officer at WWF European Policy Office, said:
“This is a damning report from the very experts the Commission hired to help it develop its proposals. It’s yet more evidence that the biomass sustainability criteria in the Renewable Energy Directive are seriously flawed. Burning trees instead of coal is complete madness and will make climate change worse not better.”

“During the trilogue negotiations on the Directive the Member States and the Parliament must take steps to limit the damage - for example by preventing old, inefficient coal plants from converting to biomass. Member States must also be allowed to apply stricter criteria at national level - that’s now the only way to ensure that biomass delivers genuine emissions reductions compared to fossil fuels.”

Linde Zuidema, Fern Senior Policy Advisor, said:
“This report offers compelling evidence supporting warnings made by Fern and others for years: burning wood for bioenergy can lead to high greenhouse gas emissions. As EU countries enter the final weeks of negotiations for a new renewable energy policy, it is a warning they can simply no longer ignore.
“An important topic that is still to be decided on, is to what extent EU countries will be able to grant public support to wood burning in large inefficient power stations. This report should urge countries to take a firm position on this”.

For WWF, key findings in the report include the following:
  • Some types of bioenergy increase greenhouse gas emissions significantly compared to burning fossil fuels, including coal.
  • Without appropriate sustainability criteria a significant increase in bioenergy use in the EU is likely to increase emissions not reduce them.
  • But the Renewable Energy Directive contains hardly any of the sustainability criteria needed to stop that happening - only 3 of the 15 criteria identified in the report are effectively covered.
  • If this isn’t fixed then Member States will have to apply additional sustainability criteria at national level to ensure biomass delivers genuine emissions reductions.

The Forest Research report is published as the ‘trilogue’ negotiations in Brussels on the Renewable Energy Directive reach crunch time. The Member States and Parliament meet this Thursday for a trilogue negotiation on the directive, so they still have a chance to make changes to the proposals. Member States are also likely to discuss the directive on 11 June in Energy Council.

More information:

Read the report

Background to the report

Forest Research is the Research Agency of the Forestry Commission, which is a non-ministerial UK government department responsible for forestry in England and Scotland. Forest Research describes itself in the report as “the leading UK organisation engaged in forestry and tree related research”.

Forest Research (hereafter ‘FR’) was employed by the European Commission to carry out detailed modelling on bioenergy and the resulting report, titled “Carbon impacts of biomass consumed in the EU” was published in December 2015. The contents of that report were drawn on heavily by the European Commission in preparing its impact assessment on the revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which was published by the Commission in November 2016.

When the Commission’s RED proposals and impact assessment were published, they appeared to be based on a very incomplete interpretation of the original FR report. The Commission essentially emphasised that total EU emissions fell under all scenarios (even though this was not necessarily due to bioenergy) and ignored the warnings in the report and other Commission produced or Commission-funded studies on the potential for some sources of bioenergy to increase rather than reduce emissions. The RED thus contained no restrictions on the types of forest biomass that could be burnt for energy and no effective GHG accounting framework that would have excluded high risk sources. The proposals were strongly criticised at the time by WWF and other environmental NGOs, and earlier this year MEPs were urged by nearly 800 scientists, including IPCC lead authors and winners of the US medal of science and Nobel prize, to amend the proposals and restrict biomass incentives to wastes and residues.

The RED proposals are currently in trilogue negotiations between the Parliament and Council. As attempts to improve the sustainability criteria in the RED by progressive political groups in the Parliament (by excluding stumps and roundwood) were defeated, there is every chance that the revised RED will continue to incentivise a big expansion in the use of forest biomass for energy. However there are still some provisions under discussion that could limit the damage, for example on the requirement that biomass be burnt in efficient combined heat and power plants, that Member States be allowed to apply tougher sustainability criteria at national level, and that the Commission review the impact of the new rules in in 2023 (the Council wants to delay that until 2026).

Direct quotes from the report:
  • “Using all of the stemwood from forests (i.e. from all of early thinnings, later thinnings and from clearfelling) directly for energy leads to net increases in GHG emissions, even compared to burning coal.”
  • “Unless appropriate policy measures are taken to support sustainable bioenergy supply (in terms of impacts on GHG emissions), particularly in the case of forest bioenergy supply, a significant increase in bioenergy use in the EU is likely to lead to a net increase, rather than decrease, in GHG emissions being contributed from bioenergy sources.”
  • “The RED II makes no specific provisions for 9 out of the 15 recommended criteria. For 3 of the 15 recommended criteria the RED II might be expected to deliver some indirect, but non-specific, support. In 3 of the 15 recommended criteria, the RED will deliver a direct policy signal.”
  • “It is important that those countries seeking to implement the RED II are aware of the relevance of the above sustainability criteria for the implementation of the RED II, because if the EU bioenergy policy is to meet its stated goal of reducing GHG emissions, such criteria will need to be implemented within national policy.”

Alex Mason, WWF European Policy Office +32494762763
Sarah Azau, WWF European Policy Office +32473573137
Linde Zuidema, Fern +32472955220
Virgin forest Poland
Burning trees for energy harms forests and the climate
© Adam Lawnik/WWF