Building consensus on sustainable use of biomass for EU bioenergy

On 16 September, several stakeholders came together at a workshop to discuss sustainable biomass supply and the role of bioenergy in the EU going forward. But how much agreement can be established?

The capacity of biomass to replace fossil fuels in existing infrastructure and the variety of end-uses makes it appear as an attractive resource in the decarbonisation transition. However, the production and extraction of biomass have profound implications for natural ecosystems and in particular the reduction in natural carbon sinks and stocks that are essential to maintaining a climate balance. Despite several policies (e.g., the Renewable Energy Directive III, the EU Bioeconomy Strategy) recognising the need for more efficient, circular, and sustainable use of biomass and bioresources, it is subject to complex debates and encompasses various, often polarised views.

On 16 September, research institutions, NGOs, industries, and policymakers came together to discuss sustainable biomass supply and the role of EU bioenergy going forward. The workshop, hosted by IEEP, took the form of a lively discussion and drew several conclusions.

Regarding drivers of demand and subsidies, some participants argued that subsidies play a small role in driving demand and that harvesting for by-products does not have a big impact on biomass and bioenergy demand. Instead, the market will dictate in what direction the bioenergy industry will move. Others argued that it is difficult to say that subsidies do not have an impact when looking at the billion euros subsidies provides annually, but that making a causal link between subsidy payment in increased harvesting is challenging. And lastly, some questioned the need for subsidies at all and that some existing incentives are incoherent with the EU’s green deal objectives and cannot be justified in climate terms. Therefore, whilst there was no consensus view, it seems that there is little demand for future subsidies of the sort we have today for using biomass for energy.

Little consensus was reached on the type of biomass feedstocks that could be used for bioenergy within planetary or sustainability boundaries. Stakeholders held opposing views on the importance of regulating the use of certain feedstocks. Some argued that the criteria set by existing policy instruments (such as the proposed Renewable Energy Directive III Regulation) do not go far enough, particularly for woody coarse biomass, others argued that we should rather focus on sustainably sourcing all feedstocks through better monitoring and enforcement. Lastly, some emphasised that REDII is an incentive to renewable energy, including bioenergy, and not an instrument to regulate forestry and forest feedstocks. Sustainability criteria were also discussed with calls to ensure criteria across different EU policy areas and that instruments are coherent. This could help reduce administrative burdens which participants mostly agreed are important to address as they can have important negative social and environmental consequences, and lead to inaction.

Data, assumptions, and biomass models used to estimate sustainable future biomass availability and demand emerged as a key point of discussion between stakeholders. Participants were quick to highlight that this uncertainty should not be an excuse to slow down our efforts to ensure biomass use is sustainable. There was an understanding that disagreements and uncertainties over numbers can be largely attributed to their underlying assumptions and biomass models used. For example, some models only consider carbon impacts which will differ from calculations including other dimensions of sustainability such as biodiversity. Differences also arise from the use of future scenarios, especially long-term ones. Some of these might become quickly outdated with changes in the policy landscape and the availability of future technologies. The discussion revealed that many factual disagreements between stakeholders are rooted in uncertainties in numbers due to differences in the underlying assumptions, models, and definitions. Therefore, the conversation should focus on interrogating these and reaching a common understanding.

Uses for biomass can be prioritised according to their value, and there was a common understanding among participants that markets will shift to high-value uses of biomass. However, how this “value” should be defined is more controversial among the participants. The value of biomass can be economical, environmental, or social, and this value is perceived differently between stakeholders. Therefore, when thinking about the value we must ask “to whom?”. For example, although harvesting biomass might be economically valuable, the value of its in-situ benefits (e.g. to soil health), might outweigh these. The workshop participants agree that the different values should be better captured to help the decision-making process about how and in what way biomass can support the EU’s green deal objectives and make a substantial contribution to society both in the EU and globally.

The workshop showed the importance of bringing together stakeholders to debate and find points of agreement to move forward and guide the political development on sustainable use of biomass for EU bioenergy and the wider bioeconomy. The outcome of this workshop is contributing to an upcoming report on the availability of sustainable biomass to meet energy needs, explore the uncertainty and divergence of opinion of the role of biomass in the environmentally sustainable development pathways for bioenergy (and wider bioeconomy) in line with the European Green Deal objectives.

© Photo by Nipun Jagtap on Unsplash