After tackling biofuels, Brussels turns its guns on solid biomass

February 7, 2013 | 00:00

After tackling biofuels, Brussels turns its guns on solid biomass

The European Commission plans to issue proposals for binding EU sustainability criteria for biomass in the first half of this year. The idea is to pre-empt an environmental backlash of the kind that has thrown biofuels from favour.

“Yes we are worried,” said DG energy official Hans van Steen at an NGO-organised debate on the sustainability of Scandinavian biomass at the European Parliament at the end of January. “We’ve seen it in the area of biofuels.”

If biofuel is a liquid substitute for oil in transport, biomass is a solid substitute for coal or gas in electricity generation, heating and cooling. The former comes from food-based crops (for now), the latter is effectively wood. Together they constitute “bio-energy” and are expected to account for over half of all European renewable energy in 2020. But the big question mark hanging over biofuels is now moving towards biomass: how sustainable is it really?

This is an important question not least because the EU’s attainment of its 20% renewable energy target depends on it. And with that, the success of its climate and energy policy to date. To guarantee a role for biomass in the future energy mix, the Commission wants to issue sustainability criteria similar to those which already exist for biofuels i.e. including standards for CO2 savings and protection of biodiversity-rich areas.

But the Commission has yet to make up its mind on the most controversial elements of the new proposals, said Van Steen in January: whether there is a need for “more severe criteria” for forest management and whether to tackle the issue of “carbon debt”, a term used to describe the problem that because trees take time to grow, biomass from old-growth forests cannot be considered carbon neutral for a very long time (decades).

Sound familiar? The debate over carbon neutrality certainly should. This is the debate that has plagued biofuels through the issue of indirect land-use change (ILUC), or the indirect displacement of forest by crops grown for energy. Legislative proposals to recognise ILUC, albeit heavily watered down at the last moment, were issued by the Commission last October and are set to be examined by member states and MEPs this year.

Carbon debt is not ILUC, but it could very easily become a similarly protracted debate that takes years to resolve. The Commission wants to avoid this, but it will be difficult to ignore the carbon debt issue. At January’s biomass event, Anna Repo from the Finnish Environment Institute presented data showing that harvesting wood for energy could lower total forest carbon stocks, and cut the greenhouse gas savings from bio-energy by as much as 60-80%.

Van Steen suggested it might be possible to tackle carbon debt implicitly. “Do we want a criterion that particularly addresses that?” he asked. “There may be ways of addressing CO2 in the long-term that could function as a proxy, for example through requirements related to forest management plans.” The problem here is that this is exactly the area that some of Europe’s biggest forest owners do not want him to touch.

Fierce opposition to any EU rules on forest management is being led by Finland and Sweden, while other member states such as Austria, Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia and the Czech and Slovak Republics reportedly also dislike the idea. These countries argue that EU involvement would introduce unnecessary bureaucracy and that forestry is a national competence. The EU should focus on implementing existing initiatives such as a new EU timber regulation (to combat illegal logging) and partnerships on forest governance and trade with timber-exporting countries (the Flegt scheme), they say.

All this rests on the assumption that forests in Europe today are pretty well managed. This, argue some, is far from the case. At January’s event for example, a Swedish academic and campaigner both showed that although total forest area is going up, there is a loss of old-growth forest with a heavy toll on biodiversity. Taken together with Repo’s data on carbon debt, they argue that EU sustainability criteria for biomass are urgently needed.

The EU is desperate to keep its climate and energy policy intact, especially as a new debate over a 2030 climate and energy package kicks off. But what price – in terms of environment and climate change – is it prepared to pay for political success?

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