Bioenergy and climate change: hard questions to answer

In the search for new sources of renewable energy, a growing share is coming from forests in the form of biomass. European countries burnt 13 million tonnes of wood pellets for electricity generation and heat in 2010, most of the global total of 16 million tonnes. There are now strong incentives to increase the use of wood for energy in Europe both because it is readily available and because it can count towards reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is no effective and objective accounting system in place to allow us to judge the true impact of burning biomass on the climate. In some cases it will be negative rather than positive.

In short, we now have a policy framework which will drive the greater use of bioenergy to 2020 but with no associated guarantee of reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the conclusion of a report published today by the Institute following a study of the existing and emerging literature and new thinking on this topic.

Emissions of greenhouse gases from bioenergy have been underestimated in many studies and “life cycle assessments” because of a common misapprehension that energy from wood is “carbon neutral” because trees and other forms of biomass regrow over time. However, as the report demonstrates, this is not necessarily the case and a more rigorous approach is needed to identify precisely what the climate impacts will be, both immediately and in the longer term. At present policy is not made on the basis of solid evidence about climate impacts and this failing needs to be rectified.

Some forms of bioenergy, particularly from waste and residues, generally will have a much more favourable impact on the climate than the use of wood pellets. To make more use of these sources governments would need to put appropriate incentives in place to give them greater priority in energy supply.

“European policy on bioenergy needs to be aligned with climate objectives and underpinned by the evidence; the simplistic assumption that it is carbon neutral needs to be put behind us”, said David Baldock, Director of the Institute.

For further details, please contact Bettina Kretschmer (bkretschmer@ieep.eu), Tel: +32 (0)2 738 7478

Notes:

  1. Bowyer, C, Baldock, D, Kretschmer, B and Polakova, J (2012) The GHG emissions intensity of bioenergy: Does bioenergy have a role to play in reducing GHG emissions of Europe’s economy? Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP): London.
  2. As well as the full report a shorter non-technical summary is available and is attached.
  3. All countries belonging to the EU have a target to increase the level of energy derived from renewable sources by 2020. In seeking to meet their target they can choose between different sources of renewable energy. Evidence from national plans prepared by governments suggest that many will seek to rely to a large extent on an increased use of bioenergy in order to meet their target. Significant quantities of this increased demand will be met from imports from outside Europe.
  4. Globally the use of wood for energy is predicted to more than double over the next twenty years.
  5. This report was funded by a grant from the European Climate Foundation.

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