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The EU’s biomass dilemma: can burning bushes ever be inexperienced?

In Could, a billboard appeared outdoors the EU parliament in Brussels taking part in a video that confirmed sparse, deforested woodland, spliced along with footage of the bloc’s high local weather official, and the phrases “the EU burns forests as gas”.

The protest fashioned a part of a marketing campaign by inexperienced teams to drive Frans Timmermans, govt vice-president for the EU’s inexperienced deal, to strip forest biomass — flamable pellets burnt for power — from the listing of power sources labeled in Europe as renewable.

The argument goes past definitions. Weeks earlier, nervous concerning the rising stress on policymakers to vary the principles, ministers from 10 European nations wrote to Timmermans to emphasize the “essential function” performed by bioenergy fuels, equivalent to pellets, in serving to member states meet the EU’s local weather objectives.

With a overview of the bloc’s local weather laws imminent, ministers from nations together with Finland, Estonia and Sweden requested for “all types” of bioenergy at the moment labelled as renewable to additionally qualify as sustainable investments, “holding in thoughts” the EU’s decarbonisation commitments.

It was a none too refined reminder that if the standing of biomass is modified it might be nearly not possible for the EU to satisfy its goal for renewables to offer a 3rd of all power utilization throughout the area by 2030.

The truth that biomass pellets are produced from carbon-absorbing bushes makes them controversial © Alamy

Biomass fuels embody pellets, natural waste and crops grown for power. They produce round half of the world’s renewable power, and 60 per cent of the EU’s, and are handled as carbon impartial if sure sustainability situations are met. Throughout Europe and Asia, the 2 foremost markets for pellets, governments hand out billions in subsidies to the business every year.

However what producers use to make pellets — carbon-absorbing bushes, which governments and corporations are turning to as a part of the answer to runaway local weather change — makes them extremely controversial.

EU policymakers at the moment are debating modifications to the therapy of wood-burning power as a part of a wide-ranging bundle of measures to chop emissions, attributable to be revealed on July 14 — revisions that would wreak havoc with the bloc’s renewable power goal and dedication to greater than halve emissions by 2030.

“With out relying closely on wooden biomass,” many member states “will discover it very troublesome to satisfy their future commitments, be it emissions reductions or renewable power commitments,” says Jorgen Henningsen, former EU fee director liable for local weather change.

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Any modifications might additionally name into query the legitimacy of EU nations having used the gas to chop emissions to this point, and slim the choices for additional decarbonising the ability business and different sectors.

“The politics of it’s so perverse,” says Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White Home local weather adviser. The concept that nationwide targets may decide the long run for biomass, somewhat than its true environmental impression, is “absurd”.

Based on a leaked fee doc, Brussels plans to stop some types of wood-burning power from counting in direction of the bloc’s inexperienced power objectives. Campaigners say the modifications should go a lot additional, by excluding forest biomass from the renewables listing altogether.

“We shouldn’t be subsidising folks to chop down bushes and burn them,” says Ariel Brunner, head of EU coverage at conservation group BirdLife Worldwide. “The notion which you can save emissions by burning carbon essentially doesn’t work.”

Big Read: Bioenergy could meet 20% of total energy need

A closely subsidised sector

The multibillion-dollar marketplace for pellets — the fashionable iteration of a centuries-old gas — took off in 2009, after the EU labeled biomass, on the time little used, as a renewable power supply alongside photo voltaic and wind. That incentivised nations with clear power targets to undertake the gas, and made the business eligible for subsidies. In 2018 — the latest yr for which figures can be found — EU nations handed out €10.3bn in help for the biomass sector.

Progress over the previous decade “has been super”, says Thomas Meth, govt vice-president of gross sales and advertising at Enviva, a serious US-based pellet producer. The EU’s 2009 transfer was “definitely one of many catalysts”.

A lot of the thousands and thousands of tonnes of pellets used globally is made and exported from expansive forests throughout the US south-east. The US, Vietnam and Canada had been the biggest exporters of wooden pellets by quantity in 2019, in response to UN knowledge.

And because the world races to decarbonise, using wood-based biomass is predicted to extend. In a report this yr concerning the pathway to web zero, the Worldwide Vitality Company stated strong bioenergy might produce round 14 per cent of worldwide power in 2050, in contrast with simply 5 per cent final yr.

UK energy firm Drax — a serious consumer and provider of pellets — says the market can be pushed by “more and more formidable world decarbonisation targets”.

The business insists swelling demand for these small, cylindrical chips will be met sustainably, and that responsibly produced biomass is carbon impartial because the emissions generated by burning pellets are sucked up by regrowing bushes.

Inexperienced teams problem the neutrality argument, and warn that growing manufacturing places pure forests in jeopardy. Utilizing extra biomass would require “large-scale logging . . . of the forests we have to retailer carbon”, says Almuth Ernsting, from the marketing campaign group Biofuelwatch.

An aerial view of biomass fuel in a compound ready to be burned to produce power at Drax Power Station in Yorkshire
Drax energy station in Yorkshire. The business insists responsibly produced biomass is carbon impartial, as emissions from burning pellets are sucked up by regrowing bushes © Alamy

‘We’d like the fitting biomass’

The talk within the EU is coming to a head over attainable modifications to the bloc’s renewable power framework — considered one of many items of laws being up to date to align with the area’s ambition to chop greenhouse gasoline emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.

“We predict an almighty battle,” says BirdLife’s Brunner. “There’s a really highly effective bloc of European governments fully enslaved to the agricultural and forest foyer.”

An individual accustomed to the discussions in Brussels, who spoke on situation of anonymity, says the biomass query is “one of the politically delicate recordsdata” within the local weather bundle. One which has divided companies with the fee’s atmosphere division wanting more durable biomass guidelines, whereas the power division is pushing again.

However, if European lawmakers strip “bio-based power” from the renewables framework, “Europe won’t meet any of its objectives”, says Enviva’s Meth. Drastic modifications usually are not “real looking”, he provides.

Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president for the EU’s green deal, says the EU needs ‘biomass in the mix’ to meet its clean energy goals.
Frans Timmermans, govt vice-president for the EU’s inexperienced deal, says the EU wants ‘biomass within the combine’ to satisfy its clear power objectives. © POOL/AFP by way of Getty Photographs

Timmermans himself has stated that with out biomass the EU can be unable to attain its clear power objectives. “We’d like biomass within the combine, however we’d like the fitting biomass . . . I hate the photographs of complete forests being lower all the way down to be put in an incinerator,” he advised the Euractiv web site in Could.

Present EU guidelines allow using complete bushes for power manufacturing, although say this needs to be “minimised”. Critics say the principles are too lax, and that the mixture of subsidies and local weather targets incentivises biomass’ use with out adequate safeguards.

Underneath UN steerage, emissions from biomass are reported by nations within the land sector, somewhat than the power one. Because of this, importing nations can get pleasure from decrease home emissions and depend on pellet-producing nations to rely the carbon.

Though the principles ought to deter producing nations from over harvesting, counting land sector emissions precisely is notoriously troublesome — a view disputed by some within the business.

“The extent of accuracy and transparency with which completely different nations measure and report land use emissions varies,” says Claire Fyson, coverage analyst at Local weather Analytics, a non-profit organisation. The chance is of “importing biomass that hasn’t been sustainably produced, or whose emissions from harvesting haven’t been precisely measured”, she provides.

Incentives for ‘burning wooden’

The backdrop to the political jostling is a longstanding argument between scientists, campaigners and the business about whether or not biomass is carbon impartial.

In February, greater than 500 scientists wrote to the European Fee and European Council presidents, urging them “to not undermine each local weather objectives and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning bushes”. They added: “Governments should finish subsidies and different incentives that immediately exist for the burning of wooden.”

Chopping down bushes, transport them all over the world on carbon-intensive vessels and burning the wooden for power “doesn’t comport with the concept of fresh power”, says Sasha Stashwick, from the Pure Sources Protection Council, a US-based non-profit organisation.

A truck carrying freshly cut timber drives through the entrance to a wood-pellet plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina, with smoking chimneys in the distance
A wooden pellet plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina. Belinda Joyner, a resident of Garysburg, about 40 miles away, says the vehicles driving by means of her city carry ‘complete bushes . . . I’ve by no means seen a truck with little logs’ © The Washington Put up by way of Getty Photographs

Pellets can truly emit extra carbon per unit of power than fossil fuels when burnt, since wooden is much less dense. However the business argues that these emissions are offset by the carbon absorbed by bushes as they regrow. If the wooden is being sourced from sustainably managed forests — the place the quantity of carbon saved within the bushes is “secure or growing” — the biomass is carbon impartial, the business says.

The complicated calculation of whether or not carbon measures are “secure or growing” is finished at a “panorama” degree — huge areas surrounding pellet mills that may span thousands and thousands of hectares. Enviva and Drax say assessments of the US forests they supply from are finished roughly each 5 years utilizing the nation’s nationwide Forest Service knowledge, along with different monitoring.

Nevertheless, panorama assessments ignore the truth that bushes would have grown extra and absorbed further carbon had they not been harvested, say some scientists and campaigners. A discount within the quantity of carbon being absorbed “is successfully the identical as a tonne extra of emissions”, says Mary Sales space, director of the Partnership for Coverage Integrity, a local weather marketing campaign group.

Broad panorama assessments may obscure the results on forests of pellet manufacturing versus different makes use of of the wooden equivalent to making furnishings or paper, says Timothy Searchinger of Princeton College’s College of Public and Worldwide Affairs. If forests are managed in order that “they haven’t any web progress, that’s damaging for local weather change”, he provides. Stopping further progress is “so clearly unsuitable. Why does [the industry’s argument] take folks in?”

The business is eager to impress that it doesn’t lower down bushes that may in any other case stay standing. As an alternative, pellets are made largely from wooden residues — equivalent to offcuts from bushes harvested for different functions — that may usually go to waste or find yourself rotting.

“The forest isn’t harvested for biomass,” since it’s extra worthwhile to make use of the wooden for furnishings or different merchandise, says Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general of commerce affiliation Bioenergy Europe.

Non-profit organisations dispute this, and level to pictures of vehicles piled excessive with tree trunks en path to pellet mills. Belinda Joyner, a resident of Garysburg, North Carolina, who has spoken out in opposition to the close by Enviva mill, says the vehicles driving by means of city carry “complete bushes”, including: “I’ve by no means seen a truck with little logs.”

Enviva says issues about complete bushes are “one of the frequent misperceptions . . . An untrained or uneducated eye usually errors low-value wooden for high-value lumber.” Giant logs could be diseased or deformed, and unable for use for different functions, the corporate provides.

Column chart of  2014 total = 100 showing Global demand for industrial wood pellets

Path to web zero

Web zero emission plans all over the world map out an growing use of biomass as nations race to dump fossil gas power. The IEA’s newest decarbonisation report estimates that the quantity of land devoted to bioenergy manufacturing might rise from 330m hectares in 2020 to 410m in 2050 — a rise roughly equal to the dimensions of Turkey — if bioenergy use jumps as anticipated.

Stressing the necessity to proceed fastidiously, the European Fee’s Joint Analysis Centre warned this yr that almost all EU nations’ power and local weather plans didn’t “embody an sufficient evaluation of the potential impacts of increasing forest bioenergy”. Just one out of the 24 woody biomass eventualities it modelled was prone to pose no danger to biodiversity and ship short-term local weather advantages, it concluded.

How the gas is used may additionally change. Some methods for reaching web zero speak about coupling biomass with nascent carbon seize and storage expertise, which advocates say will generate “damaging emissions”, in impact eradicating carbon from the environment.

Critics say the expertise is unproven at scale, and that damaging emissions are solely achievable if the biomass gas is certainly carbon impartial. With out ensures that it’s, “we must always definitely not be going full steam forward” with the expertise, says Phil MacDonald, chief working officer at think-tank Ember Local weather.

“In principle, it may possibly work,” he provides. However “you need to get issues exactly right alongside a fancy provide chain.”

In its 2020 emissions stock, the EU stated the “very sturdy enhance in using biomass for power” had diminished carbon air pollution throughout the area, although didn’t say by how a lot.

A lobbyist accustomed to the discussions in Brussels, talking on situation of anonymity, says modifications past these outlined within the leaked doc are doubtless, and that efforts are beneath strategy to restrict which forms of forest biomass are eligible for subsidies. “The problem” for lawmakers is partly how drastic modifications can be seen, he provides: the EU must “rise up in public and [say] what we have now been doing . . . hasn’t labored”.

Martin Pigeon, from environmental marketing campaign group Fern, says the fee is “actually cut up internally”, and there may be “a critical battle occurring” between the power and atmosphere departments.

“Timmermans and [commission president Ursula] von der Leyen appear to be making an attempt to dealer a compromise,” he provides. However the danger is that the fee continues to “tinker on the edges of present sustainability standards . . . with out [producing] something of substance”. 

Within the US, inexperienced teams are hoping the Biden administration steers away from biomass as it really works in direction of its new objective of halving emissions by 2030.

The controversy within the EU over how biomass has been labeled and used — together with the subsidy system that incentivises its use — needs to be a “cautionary story”, says Laura Haight, US coverage director on the PFPI. “It’s important that we outline our insurance policies fastidiously in order that we don’t have the result that [they have] had.”

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