The “Burning Issue” – When anti-bioenergy communication goes bad

“The Burning Issue: – When bioenergy goes bad” is the sensationalist title of the latest film released by Brussels-based NGOs BirdLife Europe and Transport & Environment. The release was supported by a significant marketing effort, including trailers that featured an arsenal of rhetorical statements to the backdrop of epic music. As is often the case with such teasers, the movie fell short of its expectations. In fact, the mountain turned out to be a molehill: the movie proposed 5 cases supposedly representing the drifting of a whole sector towards unsustainable practices. But like all good marketing campaigns, its release is perfectly timed: the ‘Winter Package,’ considered the most essential piece of legislation for renewables and bioenergy for the decade to come, is currently under discussion at EU level. This approach from a marketing standpoint is a double-edged sword: while it might be effective at putting pressure on current negotiations and invoking emotions, it is counterproductive in the long-run by blurring a key debate with baseless arguments.

During a time when the US president expresses his support to the fossil fuel industry and Europe faces a stall in renewables investment, the campaign plays a risky game seeking to tarnish the reputation of bioenergy, a central solution to providing clean energy. As the final objective of the campaign is to support a limit on the use of biomass for energy, we are left with only one alternative: an increased use of fossil fuels, resulting in higher greenhouse gas emissions. This “burning issue” was not addressed.

Emotional storytelling is not representative of the ground realities or the EU’s statistics on bioenergy. Using such examples to generalise the whole sector is not only misleading, it discredits the honest work of hundreds of thousands of foresters and project developers working in the energy transition. Bioenergy currently represents more than 60% of the total renewable energy consumption in Europe, staying largely comprised of local SMEs that fuel community projects. In this context, it would have been more constructive to comprehensively report on the great number of sustainable examples of bioenergy projects spread across Europe. It would be a more credible, but far less sensational narrative.

As in any other sector, there is no doubt that poor practices need to be addressed. Bioenergy must develop within a sustainable framework, which is why for many years AEBIOM has been calling for the introduction of EU sustainability criteria for all bioenergy. The cases featured in the movie may need to be carefully examined – as well as the investigation methods used to produce this movie.

In the end, it’s a pity that the campaign has such a flawed approach. The ongoing EU debate deserves better than marketing gimmicks and sweeping statements. We need instead a constructive dialogue on reasonable actions and pragmatic rules for bioenergy to keep replacing fossil fuels. All across Europe, local NGOs are already collaborating with bioenergy players to improve sectorial standards. Bioenergy is here to stay, with a primary role in the energy mix for the decades to come – and has a willingness to collaborate on the basis of non-fictional grounds.

Didzis Palejs, President of the European Biomass Association (AEBIOM)