The biomass dilemma
EU rules out binding green criteria for biomass
The European Commission yesterday (25 February) ruled out binding EU-wide sustainability criteria for biomass, offering member states recommendations for national action instead.
The EU's Renewable Energy Directive set a binding goal to source 20% of the bloc's energy from renewable sources by 2020 (see EurActiv LinksDossier). This included a target to provide 10% of transport energy from renewable sources, including biofuels.
The directive included sustainability criteria for biofuels for transport as well as bioliquids in electricity, heating and cooling. It also obliged the European Commission to publish by December 2009 a report on the requirements for a separate sustainability scheme for the use of biomass other than biofuels or bioliquids.
Biomass, either solid or gaseous, is biological material that usually derives from agricultural crops and residues, from forestry, or from biodegradable waste such as municipal waste and sewage sludge. In order to produce energy, it can be converted directly into heat or electricity or into biofuels or biogas.
The European Commission said the wide variety of biomass feedstocks make it impossible to devise a harmonised scheme, which would require taking into account their varying potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It also said that the environmental risks related to domestic biomass production "are currently low" and do not require specific EU rules.
The question has divided the EU executive and member states alike. The Commission's environment department, backed by a group of member states including the UK and the Netherlands, favoured binding sustainability criteria in order to ensure the environmental integrity of biomass energy production.
But the Commission's energy and transport department prevailed, saying no additional environmental safeguards are necessary. This led to criticism that the EU executive was seeking to reduce the European Union's dependence on fossil fuels at any cost.
"Biomass is one of the most important resources for reaching our renewable energy targets.It already contributes more than half of renewable energy consumption in the EU, providing a clean, secure and competitive energy resource," said Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger.
The report acknowledged sustainability concerns surrounding biomass production in terms of protecting the biodiversity of ecosystems and carbon stocks, notably forests. But it argued that biomass waste and wood-processing residues are by-products that would be produced anyway, regardless of the energy sector.
Moreover, the paper argued that deforestation, mainly at global level, and indirect land-use change resulting from the production of energy crops can lead to a loss of carbon in forests and soils. However, it considered that these issues are addressed most effectively at international level and expressed hope that rules governing land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) will be agreed under a new international climate agreement.
Nevertheless, the Commission said it would reassess the situation by the end of 2011 and consider introducing mandatory measures to address sustainability problems in the event that land-use change and deforestation issues are not dealt with at international level.
Voluntary criteriaIn the absence of an EU-wide sustainability scheme, the Commission proposed criteria that member states could apply voluntarily.
It set out a common methodology for calculating the greenhouse gas performance of different biomass feedstocks, to ensure that their use delivers at least 35% greenhouse gas savings, rising to 50% in 2017 and 60% in 2018 for new installations. However, member states should not impose greenhouse gas performance criteria on waste, which is covered by environmental rules laid down in waste legislation.
The report recommended that biomass should not be sourced from land converted from forest or other areas of high biodiversity or carbon stock. Member states were also urged to retain records of the origin of biomass and communicate these to the Commission for the purposes of monitoring potentially vulnerable areas.
Moreover, the report stated that member states should use their support schemes for electricity, heating and cooling installations to provide incentives for making energy conversion more efficient. It said it would propose minimum efficiency and air quality requirements for small-scale solid-fuel boilers this year.
Binding EU criteria might be reconsidered next year. The European Commission will publish a report by 31 December 2011 considering whether additional measures are necessary.
The European Biomass Association (AEBIOM) argued that non-binding measures provide adequate guarantees on the sustainable use of biomass. It pointed out that only 24% of energy biomass comes from dedicated biomass from agriculture and forestry, while the rest are by-products and residues.
"The risks of using unsustainable biomass are low. EU biomass production is covered already by the existing framework for agriculture, forestry and environment. These include the cross-compliance rules, environmental legislation, sustainable forest management practices and voluntary forest certification schemes," said Morten Thoroe, secretary-general of the Confederation of European Forest Owners (CEPF).
The Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) regretted that the European Commission did not go far enough to guarantee that wood is subject to the same stringent sustainability criteria whether used to produce paper or energy. It said that a harmonised European scheme would have ensured the functioning of the internal market for biomass and prevented the need to import unsustainably-produced biomass from outside the EU.
"The European Commission reportedly states that all policy measures should aim at creating a sustainable economy. The report published today clearly demonstrates the need for a coherent EU approach among its policy areas," said Teresa Presas, CEPI managing director. "The forthcoming EU 2020 strategy should address these inconsistencies."
- 2010: Commission expected to propose minimum efficiency and air quality requirements for small-scale solid-fuel boilers.
- By 31 Dec. 2011: Commission to report on whether additional measures are necessary.