Ensuring the carbon sustainability of biomass

The recent release of the Commission’s “winter package” of climate and energy policies includes a proposal for a new Renewable Energy Directive. For the first time this includes an extension of sustainability criteria to cover solid biomass (principally wood pellets and chips from forests).

Whilst this recognition that bioenergy is not sustainable by default is welcome, the challenge of ensuring the carbon sustainability of bioenergy in practice remains significant. It is important to give EU citizens confidence that biomass used for energy will deliver a meaningful contribution to Europe’s low carbon energy transition. Only sustainable forms and sources of biomass should be promoted – and subsidised - through public policy.

Some forms of biomass can offer a positive contribution to climate objectives if used appropriately, whereas others do not and can even be detrimental. To ensure that biomass energy delivers greenhouse gas (GHG) savings, those using it should have to show GHG emissions are being reliably reduced as an inherent part of the bioenergy production. The production should take place within a satisfactory timescale and significantly lower GHG emissions compared to the energy sources they replace.

However, the carbon cycle of the natural world is complex, so proving GHG reductions is inherently complex. Simply maintaining the continued growth of the standing stock of biomass (i.e. trees) within a forest is not enough. The choice of feedstock, sourcing, transportation, conversion efficiency and accounting all play an equally important role. Member States and operators will need guidance on what practices and approaches deliver real carbon savings in practice.

This report from IEEP, working with Drax, considers three approaches, potentially brought together in a package of measures that would provide policymakers and the wider public with a high degree of confidence that significant real reductions in net GHG emissions are being achieved. These include:

  • Sustainable sourcing where the policies incentivising the use of biomass should provide guidance on the types and locations from which biomass may be considered more sustainable, and only these should be eligible for public support. Sustainable sourcing requires consideration of the type of feedstocks that are collected; the location from which these feedstocks are sourced; and the management of forests and other feedstocks to build carbon stocks rather than deplete them.
  • Ensuring that deployment is within sustainable limits through adherence to binding sustainability criteria, and/or quantified limits where possible. The latter provides a clear signal to operators and society of the maximum scope for bioenergy within a wider and more diverse renewable energy sector. 
  • Improving carbon sustainability by ensuring that GHG emission savings will be ambitious and sufficient when compared to relevant fossil fuel baselines. Setting a GHG emission intensity requirement, whereby bioenergy production in a plant would have to meet an absolute emissions threshold rather than a saving relative to a fossil fuel baseline, would be one route to meeting this requirement.

Allied to these sustainability criteria is the need for coherent and complementary accounting frameworks that recognise the carbon benefits and impacts of biomass within the sectors in which it is used, as well as those in which it is produced. The geographic differences in approaches taken between the EU, the Member States and third countries needs to be addressed and a workable approach established, particularly if the EU is to continue to rely on imported biomass as a significant source of energy for many years rather than on an exceptional basis.

More details on IEEP’s work in this area is available here. Alternatively, contact Ben Allen (ballen@ieep.eu), Catherine Bowyer (cbowyer@ieep.eu) or Silvia Nanni (snanni@ieep.eu).

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