A recent project titled “Money to Burn” investigates the bioenergy industry, putting forward some oversimplified and misleading claims. In addition to the well-known emotive claims, it is important to address some fundamental misconceptions presented.

In the following response, Bioenergy Europe analyses the claims asserted and provides counter-arguments shedding light on overlooked facts about the industry.

- The flaws in EU legislation

Firstly, it is essential to stress that the Renewable Energy Directive (REDII) sets unique sustainability criteria for the bioenergy sector. Bioenergy is the only energy source that must comply to such stringent criteria. Despite the burden for the industry, this outcome was not only considered indispensable but welcomed by the whole sector.

In this regard bioenergy has become a pioneer and should inspire many other sectors to implement similar land and CO2 criteria along the whole supply chain and that must be respected even for imports. This legislation is the first of its kind, with no equivalent in any other energy, material, or food products.

It was understood that such criteria would reinforce the role of bioenergy in climate change mitigation efforts and reassure investors. The implementation of the REDII sustainability criteria will kick off in mid-2021. The industry has worked relentlessly to be ready, with premature judgement serving only to negatively impact the industry.

- Arbitrary use of “whole tree”.

The report refers to how the REDII categorised woody biomass as renewable, not only that which comes from residues or waste but also the so-called “whole trees”. This gives the impression that there is no control over the sourcing of biomass and oversimplifies a highly refined process.

Indeed, the report fails to provide a definition of “whole trees”. This is simply because there is no definition. In fact, ‘whole tree’ is an arbitrary designation that does not relate to a particular forest product or grade of wood. Yet the term understandably appeals to emotions.

Europe and the Member States have clear rules on forestry. Not all trees can be harvested, and those that can, are not all fit for energy production. There are some trees that are too small, misshapen, or diseased that cannot be used for other industries such as timber. Furthermore, thinning practices can maximise forest growth and allow foresters to focus on fewer, higher quality stems, continuing storing and sequestering carbon while also reducing the risk of natural disturbances such as wildfire and pest infestations.

Low value trees which are not marketable, can represent an extra source of revenue while at the same time support the replacement of fossil fuel.

- The bioenergy sector “burns trees”

The report suggests that the increased demand for woody biomass in recent years is a driving force of deforestation. This statement overlooks the on-the-ground, European reality.

Bioenergy use has indeed continuously increased over the decades and biomass comes for its most part in the form of woody biomass (69%). However, as explained above, the sector does not simply “cut trees to burn them”. The bioenergy industry relies on a very complex value chain and strong ties with other forest-based sectors.

According to the latest FAO figures, European forests have increased by 47% since 1990 and between 1990 and 2020 forest coverage gained on average 482.000 hectares every year. This is equivalent to 1,3 football fields every minute. Furthermore, the percentage of wood removal harvested for energy purposes has remained stable over the years.

This demonstrates that bioenergy is not a driving force behind forest harvesting. On the contrary, this increase is due to the better use of residues from forest-based industries. In this sense, the bioenergy sector is an example of effective bioeconomy, that has environmental and socio-economic benefits.

Wood from the forest and wood industry by-products in EU28 primary energy production of forest biomass between 2000 and 2018 (ktoe)

Wood from the forest and wood industry by-products in EU28 primary energy production of forest biomass between 2000 and 2018 (ktoe)

Source: Eurostat, Bioenergy Europe’s calculations

Bioenergy goes hand in hand with the bioeconomy development, ensuring circular economy and efficiency of the systems. So far, our fossil-based economy is generating troublesome wastes polluting our environment, while in the bioeconomy the wastes will become by-products to supply these industries with the energy they need, in a virtuous cycle.

- Emissions from biomass are worse than fossil fuel ones.

Finally, the report heavily relies on anti-biomass campaigners’ point of view that “burning trees” emits more carbon dioxide than fossil fuel. There is one basic, yet fundamental difference, between the two.

Burning fossil fuels is having the adverse effect of introducing additional carbon into the atmosphere altering the natural carbon cycle, as natural carbon sinks do not have the capability to absorb the excess of carbon which stays in the atmosphere.

When biomass is sourced from forests where carbon stocks are stable or increasing, emissions from bioenergy at the point of combustion are offset by forest growth in the forest landscape where the fuel was produced. This thereby qualifies biomass as a carbon-neutral energy resource. In other words, using biomass residues from one harvested forest plot of mature trees is (more than) compensated by the growth of other forest plots of younger trees. The stock of carbon at the landscape level is more important than the variation of stock at an all-plot level, as we must take into account the net emissions reaching the atmosphere. It should be noted that the amount of carbon stock at landscape level is a mandatory sustainability criterion of the renewable directive.

Producing energy via biomass provides a clear advantage because it emits carbon that is already part of the biogenic carbon cycle and does not add carbon like fossil fuels do. The CO2 emitted by using biomass for energy production is equal to the amount of carbon dioxide taken up by the biomass beforehand. In short, fossil fuel use increases the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere, while bioenergy systems operate within the atmospheric system at the surface of the earth; biomass combustion simply returns to the atmosphere that carbon which was absorbed as the plants grew.

Leaving forest residues on the ground for a slow decay process (as suggested in the article) is absurd: in such a case the CO2 still ends up in the atmosphere without ultimately substituting fossil fuels. The biogenic carbon cycle is still closed, in such case, but global warming will be enforced even faster.

Sustainable biomass is currently responsible for almost 60% of all renewable energy consumption in the EU. For several Member States, bioenergy is indispensable in their transition from fossil fuels and has largely replaced oil, gas, and coal in the electricity and heating sectors.

Bioenergy can provide secure and affordable renewable heat to the residential and industrial sectors and sustainable biofuels use in road, maritime and aviation. In 2018, bioenergy in EU28 recorded 310 MtCO2eq in emissions savings, equivalent to around 7% of the EU28 GHG emissions in 2018, and more than 2,5-fold the annual emissions of Belgium.

- Concluding remarks

The bioenergy industry is strongly committed to contributing to the EU transition from fossil fuels to renewables. A sustainable management of European forests ensures the effective contribution of bioenergy towards a carbon neutral Europe. The carbon stock in our forest is constantly increasing over the course of dozens of years, providing both wood feedstock for the bioeconomy and bioenergy, as well as a carbon sink.

As the largest renewable source, accounting for 10,3% of energy consumption and generating more than 703.000 jobs in Europe (particularly in rural areas), the oversimplification of such a complex value chain will not only have a detrimental effect on the sector itself, but on the EU’s current effort to phase out fossil fuels.

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