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Why Europe needs to stop promoting the burning of biomass

Something is wrong with our climate policies when they encourage using biomass, even when this will drastically increase greenhouse gas emissions. This needs to change, argues Rauli Partanen, author of the free e-book Writing about energy: A companion for journalists and readers.

By Rauli Partanen

Biomass at Tofte, Norway. (Image: Statkraft/Flickr)

There has been a lively public and academic debate over the actual emissions of bioenergy, a wide term for burning all types of biomass, such as wood chips and pellets, black liquor from pulp milling, and crop residue from farming.

Supporters argue that even though burning biomass will lead to carbon emissions, plants and trees that have been cut will grow back, and will eventually sequester the released carbon from the atmosphere. Opponents argue that even if this is true – and this also depends on the type of biomass involved – it might take decades, while all that time the released carbon dioxide is warming the atmosphere.

In this debate, some people have adopted what seems to be a nuanced position. They acknowledge that replacing wind, solar, hydro or nuclear with bioenergy will lead to more carbon emissions, and so they argue that bioenergy should only be used to replace fossil fuels. Only then, carbon emissions will go down.

However, what they fail to understand is that, in the European Union, even when fossil fuels are replaced with biomass, this can lead to an increase in total emissions.

Yes, you read that right: bioenergy can increase total emissions in Europe – not just when it replaces zero-carbon sources, but often even when it replaces coal or natural gas.

Bioenergy can increase total emissions in Europe, even when it replaces coal or natural gas

Europe’s climate and energy policies are encouraging an increase of emissions. The European Union has adopted a number of individual, seemingly beneficial policies that together create a quite catastrophic situation. Here is how it works.

First, all bioenergy is counted as zero-carbon inside the Emissions Trading System (ETS), which includes all large-scale energy production (heat, power and industry) in Europe. However, in the real world, outside the paper world of bureaucracy, the burning of biomass always releases carbon dioxide, which always accelerates global warming.

Depending on the type of biomass and the observed timescale, the climate forcing can be smaller or larger. Burning sawdust causes a small impact, while chopping up and burning roundwood has a larger effect. In some rare cases, the impact might be negative, for example if we burn waste that would otherwise rot and cause the release of methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

Current energy and climate policies encourage countries to replace coal and natural gas with biomass because bioenergy counts as renewable energy

Secondly, the ETS has a certain amount of emission allowances. If someone does not use their right to emit, it can be sold for someone else to use. So when coal is replaced with biomass, the total amount of emissions allowances in the ETS does not change, but on top of that, we also get the emissions from the biomass, which is counted as zero-carbon in the ETS.

The ETS puts a ceiling on emissions from the energy sector, but it also puts a sort of a floor beneath them. In principle, if any member state takes a national political decision to phase out coal it has no effect on the total amount of emissions rights on the ETS.

Recently, this situation has improved. To simplify a somewhat complex mechanism: some of the unused emission allowances are moved into the Market Stability Reserve (MSR), from where they can then be returned to the market if needed. If not required, they can eventually be invalidated and removed from the reserve, reducing the overall amount of emissions allowances.

Third, our current energy and climate policies actively encourage countries to replace coal and natural gas with biomass. This is because bioenergy counts as renewable energy, and all European countries have policies and targets to increase the share of renewable energy in their energy mix. In 2019, over 57% of renewable energy in Europe was bioenergy.

Image credit: Bioenergy Europe

Many countries pay direct and indirect subsidies for bioenergy in order to meet their renewable energy goals. These subsidies encourage the use of biomass in the power and heating sector, which reduces its availability for other uses, outside the ETS. For example, biomass can be used to replace petroleum-based plastics and other materials, or refined into transportation fuels to replace oil, or used as a feedstock in the chemical industry. In all these applications, biomass would replace fossil fuels.

Two more issues remain:

  1. Even if bioenergy emissions are not included in the ETS sector, they are counted in a nation’s LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change, Forestry) emissions. Decarbonising the energy sector by moving to bioenergy has led to bio-based CO2 emissions rising sharply in the EU, even as fossil fuels use in the energy sector has decreased.

  2. The other issue is that this can be avoided by importing biomass from other countries that don’t see a problem in chopping down their forests for a nice profit to feed the EU’s renewable energy goals. This has also happened to some degree.

While energy sector CO2 has fallen, CO2 from biomass has increased.

Until this policy framework is overhauled, the academic discussion on the carbon footprint of bioenergy is just that – academic. It has no relevance in the real world.

The current European climate and energy policies are set in such a way that bioenergy used in heat and power production (which fall under the ETS) often adds to our total emissions. And so do the various goals to increase renewable energy shares in our energy production, as some of this renewable energy is bound to be biomass.

It is hard to imagine this was the intent of these policies, and it is clear that they need to be fixed as soon as possible.

Rauli Partanen is an independent writer and energy analyst who lives in Finland. His books include Climate Gamble, The Age of Energy and Writing About Energy.


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