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EU to allow biomass for RED goals

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The European Parliament has voted to allow the continued use of biomass (particularly woody biomass) as a renewable energy source. It has however put a cap on the amount of primary woody biomass that can be counted towards inclusion under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED).

  • Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have voted to exclude primary woody biomass from subsidy schemes, and to cap the amount that can be counted as renewable energy.
  • The bioenergy industry has been subject to criticism over its high carbon footprint and unsustainable sourcing practices, yet it has received over €16 billion in EU subsidies.
  • Although the revised RED could prevent further expansion in the use of woody biomass, it offers little to address the problems within current operations.

The agreement on woody biomass policy came as part of a wider vote on revisions to the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which establishes the shared principles and targets underpinning the Union’s energy transition.

The revised RED will continue to recognise primary woody biomass as a renewable energy source, contradicting the recommendations of  the EU’s Environment Committee, but will cap its inclusion to the average amount used over the past five years. 

More importantly, subsidies for the use of woody biomass are to be removed. However there were compromises in the agreement reached, in that such subsidies are to be phased out gradually before actually being removed in 2030.

The controversy of the vote is a continuation of the ongoing debate as to whether the use of primary woody biomass as an energy source can be considered sustainable.

In 2021, a letter signed by more than 500 scientists was sent to the to European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, and other world leaders, calling on them to end all subsidies for wood burning bioenergy projects.

“Regrowing trees and displacement of fossil fuels may eventually pay off this carbon debt, but regrowth takes time the world does not have to solve climate change,” said the letter, which had signatories including a former vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Trees are more valuable alive than dead both for climate and for biodiversity,” it added.

The carbon footprint of woody biomass

The RED has, for years, incentivised Member States to produce bioenergy, based on the premise that the CO2 released will be recaptured during the growth of new plantations. 

The main issue with this argument is that the impacts of harvesting and burning biomass are instant, while regrowth occurs over a far longer period of time. During this period, climate change could progress beyond irreversible tipping points.

On balance, an accumulation of scientific evidence suggests that the strategic use of woody biomass within Europe’s energy transition plans is misguided.

This is the conclusion reached by the European Academies Sciences Advisory Council (EASAC), which says using woody biomass for power “is not effective in mitigating climate change, and may even increase the risk of dangerous climate change.”

Over €16 billion paid in subsidies

The EU’s inclusion of woody biomass as a sustainable form of renewable energy has seen energy companies awarded over €16 billion in subsidies.

Coal-fired power stations that convert some of their units to produce bioenergy are among those eligible for subsidies under the current RED. While a reduction in the use of coal may sound like a positive, it comes with an important caveat.

Due to its low energy density in comparison to fossil fuels, woody biomass has to be burned in greater volumes to produce the same amount of energy. This means that, per kWh generated, the emissions of burning wood are 80% higher than those of burning coal.

The revised RED will phase out, and eventually end, subsidies for such operations within the EU. It will not, however, extend this legislation to the UK, which is home to one of the most high profile power stations to have exchanged a portion of its coal feedstock for woody biomass.

EU position a challenge for UK’s Drax

In August 2022 the UK business secretary admitted that Drax’s import of wood pellets for burning from the US to the UK was not sustainable. While the UK is no longer part of the EU, the regional recognition of the problematic nature of woody biomass use may well affect both UK consumer and policy maker attitudes.

The Drax power station has a total capacity of 4,000 MW and contributes around 10% of the UK’s electricity requirements. It has been identified as the largest single emitter in the UK power sector, accounting for 13.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, yet it received £893 million in subsidies from the UK government in 2021 alone.

Following the European Parliament’s vote on biomass, environmental campaigners remain unconvinced that the gradual termination of subsidies will be effective in addressing the consequences of using woody biomass as an energy source.

Martin Pigeon, speaking on behalf of Fern, said, “the subsidies for the most climate-wrecking type of biomass – primary woody biomass – have been clawed back in principle, which could put an end to the largest biomass projects such as the conversion to biomass of more coal power plants. But the energy from this type of biomass can still, by and large, count towards renewables targets, and under current high energy prices this means forests will continue being destroyed and burned.”  

Woody biomass for energy causes old growth forest clearance

The risks of promoting the use of woody biomass extend globally, with several cases having been identified of old growth forests being unsustainably harvested to provide imported wood.

Drax, for example, was revealed to have imported wood pellets sourced through the clear cutting of old growth forests in Virginia and North Carolina. In 2016 alone, the company received around seven million cubic metres in wood pellet shipments from old growth forests in the US, Canada and Brazil.

Such practices are not uncommon, with a recent investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency finding that more than a dozen biomass facilities and pellet factories across four European countries had received tens of thousands of logs originating from protected forests. 

The European Parliament has acknowledged this issue and has confirmed the exclusion of wood from high biodiversity areas, including old growth forests, from the RED’s incentives. This exclusion, however, could be difficult to regulate.

Loose definitions accommodate loopholes

The 2021 revisions to the RED (RED II) saw the extension of sustainability criteria to include biomass sourcing. Its criteria were poorly defined, however, undermining their ability to prevent unsustainable harvesting practices.

Although the more recent revisions will cap the expansion of primary woody biomass as a renewable energy source, it fails to provide a solution to problems within existing operations.

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