Europe weighs green label for biofuels even as carbon emissions rise

The phrase renewable energy can conjure up images of solar or wind power, but in the European Union, 60% of energy classified as renewable is generated by burning organic matter – most wood from forests.

The EU is negotiating what exactly should be considered sustainable biofuel – with the added complication, now, of war in Ukraine and efforts to move away from Russian fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

Why we wrote this

Is it honest and accurate to count wood-fired power plants as clean energy? This is a burning issue, literally, in the European Union and beyond.

Proponents of bioenergy argue that burning wood can be a carbon-neutral process because the carbon released into the atmosphere will be reabsorbed by new trees growing where old ones were felled. Critics, however, say it will take decades for that to happen – time that, given the challenge of climate change, we simply don’t have.

“If you had asked me just two years ago if it was better to burn trees than to burn coal, I would have said, ‘Of course,'” says Martin Pigeon of Fern, an advocacy group for forests. “But now we live in a situation where the climate crisis is becoming very visible to everyone; we have already entered an emergency phase.

In the north of England, surrounded by villages and farmland, is a vast complex of concrete cooling towers that dominate the landscape.

These dark gray structures might give the impression of traditional power generation, feeding on a feast of fossil fuels, but not anymore. Instead of consuming large amounts of coal, most boilers at Drax Power Station now rely on a different menu: wood pellets, sourced from North American forests and shipped to the UK to keep the fires going 24 hours a day. out of 24.

It’s bioenergy, and it’s classified as a clean energy source by the UK and the European Union, among others, playing a crucial role in their renewable energy production targets. Proponents see bioenergy as a key asset in the transition to a cleaner future, even part of the longer-term mix, but critics are dismayed that logging forests can ever be considered sustainable.

Why we wrote this

Is it honest and accurate to count wood-fired power plants as clean energy? This is a burning issue, literally, in the European Union and beyond.

Tacitly recognizing this apparent paradox, the EU is currently in the middle of negotiations to classify exactly what can be considered a sustainable biofuel – with the added complication, now, of the war in Ukraine and efforts to move away from Russian fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

“Bioenergy – if done in a sustainable way – can really help with that,” says Andrew Welfle, a researcher at the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research. “We have done extensive research in collaboration with industry, government and academic partners to examine its durability. In the vast majority of scenarios, bioenergy can provide energy with much lower emissions than coal or natural gas.

Drax would certainly agree. And the North Yorkshire power station represents 12% renewable energy in the country.

Others, however, are less convinced. A group of conservation organizations filed a complaint to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development last October, challenging many of Drax’s sustainability claims. A few days earlier, Drax and 14 other companies had been launched a global investment index clean energy companies, as the criteria for inclusion have been tightened.

On the European Union side, where some of the other expelled companies are based, the subject is no less controversial. Various EU bodies are articulating their positions on the revision of what can be qualified as “green” biomass, eligible for subsidies. In a place where fully 60% renewable energy is generated by the combustion of organic matter, it is not an easy task. And while biomass can refer to sources other than trees – crops grown to provide biofuel, for example – forest biomass is the most controversial, and accounts for 70% of EU bioenergy.

“Biomass, in all its forms, is an integral part of our energy needs,” says Irene di Padua, policy director at Bioenergy Europe, a trade association that describes itself as the voice of European bioenergy. “When it comes to sustainability, we already have to meet pretty stringent requirements – how is it harvested, where does it come from, what is the carbon footprint.”

Reinhard Fuchs of Rewag, a German electricity utility, shows the wood store of the Viehhausen biomass power plant near Regensburg, Germany, May 23, 2022.

But therein lies one of the main points of contention: bioenergy proponents argue that burning wood can be a carbon-neutral process because the carbon released into the atmosphere will be reabsorbed by new trees growing where the ancients were slaughtered.

They also point out that the carbon released was only sequestered as long as a tree grew, whereas the burning of fossil fuels pumps carbon into the atmosphere that has been locked up for millions of years.

The problem, however, is that it will take decades of growth before the new trees have reabsorbed the same amount of carbon released by burning their predecessors – time, climate activists say, than we simply have. not. In addition, due to the nature of the wood, you gotta burn more than you would coal to produce a given amount of energy, thus releasing more carbon into the atmosphere in the meantime.

“At the moment, it’s the worst of both worlds, because you’re using an energy source that adds the most carbon to the atmosphere, while reducing your carbon sink,” says Martin Pigeon, forest and climate activist , and the person responsible for bioenergy, at Fern, an EU-based forest advocacy group.

“If you had asked me just two years ago if it was better to burn trees than to burn coal, I would have answered: ‘Of course’”, continues Mr. Pigeon. “But now we live in a situation where the climate crisis is becoming very visible to everyone; we have already entered an emergency phase.

For now, the debate is less about whether to use bioenergy and more about how to make it as sustainable as possible. A particular concern: what parts of trees are being used to fuel the bioenergy boom. The industry insists that it only uses garbage from other activities, parts of trees that cannot find any other use and would otherwise be sent to landfill or left on the forest floor.

Various investigations, however, have challenged these claims. A CBS report in April 2022, he captured images of mountains of logs at a pellet production plant in the United States. Photographic evidence showing a similar story was compiled from sites across the EU by the Forest Defenders Alliance during the same month. In both cases, they wonder if such quantities of heavy tree parts could not have found uses other than combustion.

The concern is that the growing demand for bioenergy may lead to logging that would not otherwise occur. In a letter sent to world leaders last year, hundreds of scientists, describing this very scenario, put their names to a plea not to “undermine both climate goals and global biodiversity by switching from burning fossil fuels to burning trees to produce energy”.

To alleviate some of these potential pressures, an EU proposal is to exclude from its definition of green biomass any wood originating fromprimary forests– areas little disturbed by human activity to date.

“The effects of using biomass for energy have impacts on the natural environment and other environmental goals, which deserve society’s attention, in addition to climate,” says Ben Allen, Executive Director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, in an email exchange.

However, the bioenergy industry is pressure to water down these proposals. In addition, at the end of January, 10 EU countries signed a letter to the European Commission, saying it was “too early” to strengthen the sustainability criteria for bioenergy. Although not yet officially in the public domain, a Commission spokesperson acknowledges receipt of the letter.

The EU is expected to reach a conclusion on the matter no later than September, when a final vote is expected to take place. Amid the debate, many experts are reluctant to dismiss bioenergy out of hand.

A paper, for example, co-authored by more than 20 scientists from institutions around the world, argues that “the narrow outlook obscures the important role that bioenergy can play in displacing fossil fuels now and supporting the transition of the energy system”.

“If you look at bioenergy over the years, it’s a dynamic picture,” says Dr. Welfle, whose work focuses on bioenergy, sustainability and climate change. “In the UK it is widely used for power generation, but the power is likely to be significantly decarbonized.”

He predicts that “in the future, it will be much more focused on niche sectors such as providing low carbon fuel options for aviation and maritime transport”.

Mary I. Bruner