EU report confirms climate benefits of sustainable biomass

By Erin Voegele | January 27, 2021

The European Commission’s Joint Research Center on Jan. 25 published a report on the use of woody biomass for energy production in the European Union. The U.S. Industrial Pellet Association and Bioenergy Europe have welcomed the report.

Regarding current sustainability criteria, the report shows that requirements included in the REDII will effectively minimize any negative impacts associated with the use of woody biomass for energy production. For implementation of sustainability guidelines to be optimal, forestry legislation and guidelines must be fit-for-purpose, properly enforced and monitored, according to Bioenergy Europe.

According to the JRC, the report also shows the need to recognize that the sustainability of bioenergy is a complex issue with no one-size-fit-all answers. There are, however, win-win and lose-lose forest management pathways for climate and biodiversity.

“Bioenergy sits at the nexus of two of the main environmental crises of the 21st century: biodiversity and climate emergencies,” the JRC said in a statement. “Forest bioenergy has the potential to provide part of the solution to both crises, but only when biomass is produced sustainably and used efficiently.”

Within the report, the researchers call the governance of bioenergy sustainability “a wicked problem,” noting it is characterized by uncertainty about consequences, diverse and multiple engaged interests, conflicting knowledge claims, and high stakes.

“Rather than suggesting unique solutions, our report aims to support the political process by defining the boundaries of the problem, improving the evidence that is available, and expanding the options for decision-makers,” says researcher Jacopo Giuntoli.

“To de-toxify the debate surrounding the sustainability assessment and governance of forest bioenergy, these differences should be acknowledged and discussed explicitly. The JRC, as a boundary organization between science and policy, is well placed to lead this effort,” Giuntoli added.

The study includes a quantitative assessment of the supply and use of wood biomass that considers wood-based bioenergy as part of the wider forest bioeconomy. The report also addresses natural disturbances and the resulting salvage loggings, which the researchers say have increased since 2014, derives estimates of total above-ground biomass, and reconstructs the detailed composition of the wood biomass input mix used for bioenergy in the EU.

The study shows that the overall use of wood biomass in the EU has increased by approximately 20 percent over the past two decades. The subset of wood biomass used for energy increased by approximately 87 percent from 2000 through 2013, with growth slowing after that time.

According to the researchers, wood-based energy production is based primarily on secondary woody biomass. For 2015, the report determined that 49 percent of wood-based bioenergy production is based on secondary wood biomass, such as forest-based industry byproducts and recovered post-consumer wood; 20 percent is from stemwood, including stems from coppice forests; 17 percent is from treetops and branches; and 14 percent is from unknown origins.

The primary question of the study aimed to determine how the EU can ensure that pathways for the provision of wood biomass, following increased demand for wood, are not detrimental to climate and biodiversity. The study asses three categories of interventions and their potential impacts, including removal of logging residues; afforestation; and conversion of natural forests to plantations. The report identifies 24 specific scenarios, including five that are likely to be a win-win for biodiversity and emissions and eight that the researchers anticipate would be a lose-lose.

For logging residues removal, the study determined that fine wood debris (slash-coniferous) removal below landscape threshold offered neutral/positive results for biodiversity and short-term carbon emissions mitigation, while fine wood debris (slash + foliage/needles) removal above landscape threshold and fine woody debris (slash – deciduous) removal blow landscape threshold offered a medium-low risk for biodiversity and short-term carbon emissions mitigation. Under afforestation, former agricultural land afforestation with other planted land managed with low intensity was identified as having a neutral/positive outlook for biodiversity and be likely to achieve carbon emissions mitigation in the medium term, while afforestation of former agricultural land with polyculture planation expected to be medium-low risk for biodiversity and able to achieve short-term emissions reductions.

USIPA has welcomed the report, noting it validates sustainability critical for wood biomass included in REDII and supports the swift and robust implementation of those criteria to effectively minimize negative impacts.

 “We welcome the JRC report which underscores the importance of sustainable biomass in helping the EU achieve ambitious climate goals while promoting forest health and safeguarding biodiversity,” said Seth Ginther, USIPA executive director.

USIPA noted the report does not represent current sourcing practices in the U.S. Southeast, but rather analyzes the potential risks of increased biomass demand. Indeed those risks are currently mitigated through various independent globally recognized certifications, including SBP and will be further mitigated through the implementation of the RED II sustainability criteria later this year. This includes assurance of replanting or regeneration after harvest, protection of sensitive areas and habitats, maintenance of forest carbon stock across the region, and a multitude of other environmental protections.

 “We support EU efforts to consider risks and ensure they are managed to avoid unsustainable biomass sourcing,” said Ginther. “The JRC makes clear that implementation of REDII sustainability criteria will successfully mitigate these risks, and allow the EU to continue relying on sustainable biomass to help decarbonize its economy and reach net zero.”

A full copy of the report can be found on the European Commission’s website.