It’s Time to Accelerate Biomass, Not Slam the Breaks

The Green Deal has led the world in addressing the climate emergency, but with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has also become a race to help solve a generational energy crisis.
By Christian Rakos | January 19, 2023

The Green Deal has led the world in addressing the climate emergency, but with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has also become a race to help solve a generational energy crisis. 

Breaking the EU’s reliance on often-imported fossil fuels will require, among other interventions, an unprecedented expansion of renewable energy to be completed in record time. As a result, the European Commission’s newly proposed 2030 target for renewable energy consumption has jumped from 40% to 45%—more than double today’s share.  

There is no margin for error to meet this aggressive target, and the EU cannot afford policies that reduce or limit existing renewable energy generation. Yet, this is exactly the intention of proposals from the European Parliament to reduce use of sustainable woody biomass, the EU’s leading source of renewable energy. Not only would these proposals have massive and far-reaching negative consequences, but they have not been properly assessed by EU institutions, a prerequisite for sound policymaking. They also contradict analysis from the European Commission showing the use of bioenergy must increase significantly to meet climate targets.

The need for a rapid energy transition is not in question, but there is widespread skepticism that 45% by 2030 is within reach. A recent report from the International Energy Agency shows that although the EU will dramatically expand use of renewables by 2030, it will fall short of its RePowerEU goal with deficits projected “across all sectors.” To illustrate the breadth of the gap, the IEA forecasts that wind power only reaches 60% of the new 36 gigawatts needed. This analysis even includes assumptions of stronger policy support, regulatory reforms and grid expansion.

It is clear the EU must achieve as much progress as possible over the next eight years, regardless of agreed targets. By limiting the amount of sustainably sourced woody biomass that can be counted as renewable and removing the ability to subsidize it—even for some of the most advanced applications—Parliament’s proposals would push renewable targets further out of reach.

The IEA’s 10-point plan to reduce the EU’s reliance on Russian natural gas underscores that dispatchable, low-emission generation from bioenergy can and should be maximized. This was further reiterated in its joint work with the European Climate Foundation, which stated that increasing biomass use in power and heat could offset up to 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas, amounting to a positive cumulative climate impact of 4 million tons of saved CO2 emissions.

Even today, thousands of European cities and villages in Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Germany, France, Spain and Italy are heated with wood chips from harvest residues, making them independent from natural gas. The proposal to stop or reduce this sustainable practice in the current situation seems counterproductive. Harvest residues would decompose within a few years and lead to CO2  emissions. So, why not use them?

The European Commission’s own impact assessment for the amendment of the Renewable Energy Directive (REDIII) states that the use of bioenergy must increase by an average of 69% if we are to meet climate targets, particularly for heat and balancing the grid, as well as decarbonizing the maritime, aviation and industrial sectors. Sustainable woody biomass is a key component of this, representing today almost 70% of bioenergy use and with margin for growth, as the commission assessment makes clear. The arbitrary restrictions proposed by Parliament will make these incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

The European Commission’s impact assessment shows bioenergy use must increase this decade under all scenarios and double by 2050 to meet EU climate goals.

Arguments made in support of restrictions on biomass—particularly the use of primary woody biomass, which is essentially all low-value wood coming from a harvest, often cite another study from the commission’s science and knowledge service, the Joint Research Centre. But the JRC makes no distinction between primary and secondary biomass in terms of sustainability. In fact, all five of the report’s win-win scenarios that benefit climate change mitigation and have a neutral or positive effect on biodiversity include the use of primary woody biomass. The risks associated with the remaining scenarios are all managed by REDII or by proposals for REDIII, in both the commission proposal and council’s general approach.

Woody biomass is already the most-regulated industry in the forestry and renewable energy sectors. A final agreement on REDIII will include additional provisions to ensure it continues to contribute positive outcomes for the climate and biodiversity. The greatest risk associated with sustainable woody biomass, at this moment, is that we fail to maximize its use and prevent the European Green Deal from moving from promise to reality. Trilogue negotiations over REDIII must avoid this outcome and ensure the use of sustainable woody biomass can continue to contribute to renewable targets in line with leading models, and provide energy security to Europe.

Author: Christian Rakos
President, World Bioenergy Association