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Fit for 55? Europe needs science – and practice-based Sustainability Criteria

Fit for 55? Europe needs science – and practice-based Sustainability Criteria

If the EU really wants to deliver on its Green Deal ambitions for climate and biodiversity, the new sustainability criteria in the Fit for 55 package need to be science- and practice-based, enabling a complementary and not competing range of renewables, including bioenergy.

The European Commission has promised a “shift from strategy to delivery” in 2021, including for the Green Deal ambition of a climate-neutral Europe by 2050.

In this vein, we have the upcoming Fit for 55 Package intended to help deliver on Europe’s strengthened commitment to reducing emissions by at least 55% by 2030Wide-ranging in scope, it encompasses renewables, energy efficiency first, energy performance of buildings, land use, energy taxation, effort sharing and emissions trading.

A climate-neutral Europe means a decarbonised energy system. Evolving towards such a system is also central to both the EU’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and its long-term prosperity.

More sustainably sourced renewable energy is going to be essential to this evolution in helping fight not only climate change but also biodiversity loss. It’s for this reason that the EU’s 2030 Biodiversity Strategy prioritises solutions such as ocean energy, offshore wind, solar farms, and sustainable bioenergy.

We have a pathway to climate neutrality

Recent years have seen a wide range of models mapping pathways to zero emissions, with the most credible agreeing on the need to increase bioenergy output in helping to achieve this goal:

    • European Commission – Models for achieving EU 2030 and 2050 emissions targets in the 2030 Climate Target Plan Impact Assessment show the need for more bioenergy, as well as projecting its use to increase by 2030 and double by 2050.

    • European International Energy Agency (IEA) – its Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector report published last month identifies modern bioenergy as remaining a key resource globally in 2050, particularly in enabling integration of more variable renewables together with its use in industrial processes and district heating. Importantly, the IEA scenario includes sustainably sourced bioenergy that remains well below sustainable potentials, thus “avoiding the risk of negative impacts on biodiversity, fresh water systems, and food prices and availability”.

Complementary not competing renewables

We now find ourselves at a pivotal moment: Imminent policy decisions can create the right environment for investments to flow into the complementary mix of technologies. Europe needs to deliver on its zero emissions ambition.

In 2020, energy generation was responsible for 45% of the EU’s GHG emissions in 2018 according to the European Environment Agency. This represents a considerable carbon footprint, despite renewables having proved resilient to the COVID crisis and the drive towards investments in clean energy generation due to high CO2 prices.

Clearly, if we’re going to successfully decarbonise our energy system, we need a wide range of available renewable energy sources working in tandem. We need them to be complementary and not in competition.

Science- and practice-based sustainability criteria

At this pivotal moment, policy coherence and certainty are essential in maintaining and raising investor confidence. Without this, progress towards a climate-neutral Europe will certainly be slowed down, or even potentially reversed.

The EU can seize the current opportunity and avoid such risks by ensuring the design of the new sustainability criteria is consistently science- and practice-based. Such an approach includes taking into consideration the following five actions:

1) Maintain the Risk-Based Approach (RBA) as the core principle of biomass sustainability. As recognised by the OECD, RBA produces mutually beneficial outcomes. On the one side, Market Operators can rely on a more efficient and effective regulatory framework that can reduce cost-compliance for businesses; on the other side, RBA also ensures a minimisation risk on environmental impact. Therefore, any evolution of the current sustainability must stay aligned with this methodology.

2) Recognise that retroactive application of existing GHG emissions requirements is not simply dependent on cosmetic changes to sourcing policy. Instead, this could compromise business decisions taken under the current legal framework.

3) View sustainability as a multifaceted concept that encompasses not only environmental considerations but also equally relevant socio-economic factors. Notably, the bioenergy sector in Europe employs more people than other renewables combined, particularly in rural areas. In parallel, it contributes with € 57.7 billion to Europe’s economy (2018) across a diverse value chain from forest management to cutting edge manufacturing.

4) Consider cost-compliance for small operators. Excessive red tape risks forcing significant numbers of small operators to switch back to fossil fuels, with negative implications for jobs and growth in rural areas. This trend is already observable in a number of Member States where operators face an unstable regulatory framework for bioenergy projects, and therefore revert to fossil fuels solutions.

5) Work on evidence-based sustainability governance for the bioeconomy. Restricting sustainable bioenergy to source specific feedstock or capping its growth will yield no environmental benefit, on the contrary, it will certainly harm its supply chain and its resilience.