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Controversial energy production alternatives: Biomass (1/2)

As part of Climate Reality Europe's "Path to Zero" program, we are hosting a series of workshops discussing the most controversial energy production alternatives to fossil fuels. The second event tackled the thorny issues of energy production from biomass and hydropower.

While The Climate Reality Project does recognize biomass and hydropower as potential solutions in the energy transition, it also insists that big questions remain concerning the sustainability criteria of these options. The presentations delivered during the workshop explored some of the controversies surrounding the categorization of biomass and hydropower as renewable sources of energy.

Presentations on biomass were given by Almuth Ernsting, a researcher and campaigner with Biofuelwatch, UK, and Mary Booth of Partnership for Policy Integrity, U.S.


Almuth Ernsting: What happens when forest biomass energy production is subsidized

Almuth began by describing how bioenergy plays a disproportionately large role in the EU renewable energy. According to 2018 figures, 60% of what is classified as renewable energy in the EU comes from biomass. In 2017 (in the EU + the UK), 67% of all harvested wood was burned for energy, while forest wood (i.e., wood taken directly from the forest, whether residues or roundwood) accounted for around 37% of renewable energy in 2018.

The rise in forest degradation in Europe correlates with this growth in biomass energy production and with the increase in subsidies offered by member states to support biomass energy, prompted by the Renewable Energy Directive. Between 2016 and 2018, when the subsidies kicked in, there was a 49% increase in logged forest area and a 60% increase in biomass loss across Europe compared to 2011–2015, with an average 37% increase in the size of forest clear-cuts, according to a study published in the science magazine Nature. Almuth pointed out that this does not qualify as deforestation: What we are seeing is basically an intensification of logging and the subsequent degradation of forests in the majority of EU countries.

At the same time, imports of pellets, mostly from the south-eastern USA and Canada, are relatively steady, and intensive logging for bioenergy production is resulting in severe harm to biodiversity. Wood for pellets that are exported to Europe is sourced from the clear-cutting of hardwood forests in the southeastern USA, which are global biodiversity hotspots, while in terms of environmental justice, highly polluting pellet plants are predominantly located in already disadvantaged communities.

The biggest exporters of pellets in Europe are the Baltic States, especially Estonia and Latvia, where the demand for wood biomass is resulting in a dramatic loss of bird life. Forest birds in Estonia are declining at a rate of 50,000 breeding pairs a year, for example, while in Latvia there is an alarmingly steep decline in hazel grouse and black storks, both of which are forest birds: there were 79% fewer hazel grouse in Latvian forests in 2018 compared to 13 years earlier.

Finally, wood bioenergy also contributes to air pollution. Per unit of energy, levels of air pollution from the burning of biomass are comparable to those from coal. Replacing coal with biomass rather than clean renewable sources such as wind or solar power thus represents a missed opportunity for improving air quality.

Another controversial issue is the fact that companies can legally call any kind of roundwood “forest residues”, meaning that any wood that is surplus to requirements, as well as trees that are too big, too small, or not perfectly straight, can end up classified as residue for use in pellet production. However, even the large-scale use of genuine logging residues is highly problematic, since its removal leads to soil organic loss, soil compaction due to the use of heavy machinery, loss of soil nutrients, and damage to soil biodiversity. The removal of dead wood is particularly harmful to forest ecosystems.

Even the burning of post-production waste wood is sustainable only in very small quantities. In Germany, for example, although 88% of all waste wood can be used to make forest products such as furniture and panel boards, 75% is in fact burned for energy, thus other industries, such as the panel board industry, are importing from countries like Romania, where clear-cutting is taking place.

Almuth concluded by explaining how existing sustainability standards are not designed to address climate impacts. There is no independent mechanism for auditing and verification, but above all, the standards are not designed to address the wider impacts, including how biomass subsidies are driving the demand for wood, resulting in more intensive logging and devastating impacts on forest ecosystems. It is thus the responsibility of all EU member states to address the issue of biomass subsidies.

Mary Booth: Why forest biomass should be taken out of the Renewable Energy Directive

The achievement of the EU’s climate goals depends on a drastic increase in carbon sequestration (capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide) in the land sector. Since forest land is the biggest carbon sink in the EU, the land sector’s carbon uptake is dependent on forest carbon uptake. However, land-sector carbon uptake is currently decreasing: mismanaged, over-logged forests are storing less carbon each year, which is bad news for climate mitigation. The trend urgently needs to be reversed, yet at the same time, the EC’s climate modeling assumes that biomass use will increase in the future. Mary pointed out how the assumption that carbon capture and storage will provide 250 million tons of carbon uptake per year by 2050 is a dangerous illusion: it is highly unlikely that biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (CCS), even if it did exist, would ever be able to store that volume of carbon, and even if it did, it would not deliver “negative emissions.”

Biomass use for energy in the EU has increased significantly since 1990, despite the fact that most of the forest biomass currently being burned for energy is considered “high risk” for forests and the climate by the EU’s own Joint Research Centre. Wood and forest biomass represent a far greater proportion than the next source of renewable energy counted towards targets, which is wind. Mary described biomass as a huge “crutch” that the EU has been leaning on, which is actually increasing emissions and degrading forests, undermining climate goals and diverting into subsidies money that would be better invested in genuinely clean, zero-emissions renewable energies.

Regarding the justification of biomass burning by claiming that forest residues would anyway decompose, it is important to bear in mind that burning biomass emits considerably more carbon per unit of energy generated than burning fossil fuels, which means extra carbon is emitted to the atmosphere. These emissions need to be quickly offset, but forest regrowth is slow and, at the same time, the carbon storage represented by the growing tree itself has been lost in the process of burning. The decomposing residues emit small levels of carbon but are an important part of the forest ecosystem and biodiversity and are in fact a way of storing carbon in the soil.

In recent months, both Estonia and Finland have lost their land sink: in other words, their land sector has become a net source of carbon rather than being a net sink, and in both cases logging for biomass is implicated. Finland has increased biomass burning, fueled by the logging of forest wood rather than mill residues. More wood is burned for energy than is used for products, and in 2021 the increased use of forest energy drove the total consumption of unprocessed roundwood to record levels. In Estonia, there has been an increase in logging in recent years and an increase in biomass consumption and exports. Biomass harvesting (i.e., the pellet industry) is using and emitting to the atmosphere more than half of the total wood cut in Estonia.

Many other European countries are in the process of losing their land sinks, and in many cases, sinks are becoming sources. The solution, as Mary pointed out, lies in recognizing that “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” Primary woody biomass must be taken out of the Renewable Energy Directive and forest biomass should no longer be counted towards renewable energy targets. Incentives and subsidies for logging and burning forest wood must be halted, and the efficient use and reuse of all biomass (including mill residues) must be prioritized.

The logging industry has been creative in labeling anything it wants to as “residues”, thus when it comes to the industry’s arguments about the burning of “harvesting residues”, the word has essentially lost its meaning. The bottom line for those who care about the climate is that forest carbon is far more valuable in the forest than in the atmosphere. There are no sustainability criteria that can compensate for the fact that burning forest wood emits CO2 rapidly while regrowing forests sequesters carbon very slowly.

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