New site spotlights good, bad & ugly of bioenergy in the EU as US EPA mulls biomass carbon rules

Across the Atlantic, our colleagues have launched a terrific new website to spotlight the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to biomass energy. Chock full of valuable information and complete with gorgeous graphics, the site's hosts at BirdLife Europe, European Environmental Bureau and Transport & Environment hope it will serve a platform to "explore the limits of sustainable bioenergy in Europe", open to expert blogs, articles and other materials on bioenergy impacts.

While the site focuses on bioenergy in the EU, tackling science, policy drivers of biomass demand, common myths about bioenergy and other related topics, it is relevant to anyone in the US that cares about climate change and protecting our forests. The US exported over 4 million short tons of wood pellets in 2014, the vast majority of them to Europe, a 40% increase from 2013. But that's not all.

As I type, the US EPA--advised by a panel of expert scientists--is considering how to account for the carbon emitted when large power plants burn biomass instead of coal.

Proponents of biomass energy claim that because trees can grow back, they offer a renewable and "carbon neutral" form of fuel. But a growing body of science on the lifecycle carbon impacts of biomass energy now points to the need to distinguish amongst different types of biomass fuels.

When biomass is burned to produce energy, all the carbon accumulated in that plant matter is immediately released into the atmosphere, just like fossil fuels. However, because biomass, such as wood, is less dense than fossil fuels, you need to burn a lot more of it to produce the same amount of electricity, emitting more carbon at the smokestack. Some of that emitted carbon may be recaptured as plants regrow, meaning that at some point in the future, biomass carbon emissions can "break even" with or equal fossil fuel carbon emissions. Some forms of biomass fuel, such as fast-growing energy crops that regrow and recapture carbon quickly, have the potential to reduce net carbon emissions within a relatively short timeframe.

However, while there is some regional variability in results due to differences in climate and forest type, this research tells us that most forest biomass is not carbon neutral and that burning trees in power plants increases carbon emissions relative to fossil fuels for many decades--anywhere from 35 to 100 years or more. These impacts are not just being highlighted by American researchers. A report released by the UK's own Department of Energy and Climate Change confirms that all scenarios in which whole trees or coarse woody residuals are used for wood pellets produce a result that is not carbon beneficial.

As the site explains, most of Europe's renewable energy is bioenergy. Taking advantage of a loophole in EU policy, European electric utilities are able to burn biomass and treat it as "carbon neutral", actually receiving various forms of lucrative public subsidies in the process.

The result of their demand for biomass fuel has been bad for forests and bad for the climate. It's resulted in the explosive growth of wood pellet exports from North America, most of which originate in the forests of the Southern US, putting into peril some of the most valuable ecosystems in the world. At the same time, a recent study found that between 90 and 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) resulting from burning biomass with no climate safeguards are 'labelled' carbon neutral in Europe and thus do not require carbon permits under the EU carbon emissions trading system (ETS)--the equivalent of up to 7% of all emissions in the ETS each year.

In other words, by burning this biomass to keep the lights on, we are actually accelerating climate change at a time when we need to be rapidly cutting emissions and scaling up our use of truly renewable, low-carbon energy resources like energy efficiency, solar, wind, and geothermal.

Today, European electric utilities are the biggest drivers of expanded demand for wood fuel. But tomorrow's biomass demand could be driven by flawed policies here at home if the US EPA repeats the same mistakes as policymakers have made in Europe. And because EPA can expect its accounting rule to be applied globally, getting it wrong here in the US could drive unsustainable biomass harvests across the world's forests.

The EPA's own science panel has spoken loudly and clearly, debunking the notion that we can just assume biomass is carbon neutral. On the contrary, the panel concluded in its 2012 report that EPA must differentiate across different sources of biomass and put in place a system of carbon accounting capable of determining that biomass burned in a power plant resulted in more carbon being sucked out of the atmosphere than would have happened anyway if any of the plant's smokestack emissions are to be discounted. Nonetheless, it remains unclear what kinds of rules EPA will put in place for biomass.

The next several decades are a critical period in global efforts to transition away from high-carbon fuels to clean, truly renewable sources of energy and avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Power companies in the US and abroad must shift quickly to truly clean sources of electricity, such as wind, solar and geothermal. We cannot afford to wait decades for biomass energy to start delivering real carbon benefits and we cannot risk destroying our precious forests in the process.

If biomass is to play a role in this transition, government regulations must guide the industry towards low-carbon sources of biomass fuel that can scale up sustainably and deliver real carbon savings. Our colleagues in Europe are asking their leaders to end incentives for dirty energy produced from wood pellets and to focus instead on investing in real, clean renewables. EPA should heed the same call. This new site offers a terrific resource for anyone interested in learning more about this critical issue, now as important here at home as it is abroad.

About the Authors

Sasha Stashwick

Senior Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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