Woody energy burns hole in EU climate policy-report

Thu Oct 25, 2012 11:00am BST

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* Calls for review on EU policy

* Some bioenergy more damaging than fossil fuel

By Barbara Lewis

LUXEMBOURG, Oct 25 (Reuters) - EU carbon-cutting efforts will fall short of target because they rely on a false assumption biomass used for heat and power is emissions-free, a report said on Thursday.

The findings of the Institute for European Environment Policy reinforce concerns already raised by climate campaigners that EU environment policy is fundamentally flawed.

Already, the Commission, the EU's executive, has had to propose revised targets on biofuel for transport because of competition with food crops and their impact on land-use.

"At present there is no basis for presuming that EU bioenergy use to 2020 will deliver emission savings, and a significant risk that it may result in additional emissions," the report concludes. "Policies based on this misapprehension need to be reviewed."

To achieve a 2020 goal to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent compared with 1990 levels and increase the share of renewable energy in the mix to 20 percent, also by the end of the decade, EU nations are increasingly depending on biomass.

Made from woody pellets, forest residues and other kinds of waste, biomass is expected to account for about half of the share of renewables in the EU energy mix.

So far, this fuel has been assumed to be carbon-neutral on the grounds any emissions generated when it is burnt for heat or power are offset instantly by the regrowth of more biomass.

GOOD VERSUS BAD BIOMASS

But the report finds only certain forms of bioenergy, such as genuine waste, address the problem, while other forms, such as wood pellets made from felled wood, could prove more damaging than fossil fuel.

"The net effects on the climate, ie the full global warming impact, may range from better to substantially worse," it said.

In particular, it points to a time lag, potentially lasting for decades, between harvesting a tree and growing enough new forestry biomass to compensate.

The use of bioenergy is expected to expand as many EU governments and the industry rely on it as a relatively cheap way to shift from carbon-intensive coal and at the same time provide baseload power to complement intermittent green sources, such as wind.

Already primary energy production from wood and wood waste grew by 38 percent between 2003 and 2010, the report said, citing Eurostat data.

Environmental campaigners say there is an urgent need for the EU to agree sustainability criteria to ensure only the right kind of biomass is used.

"It is ridiculous that the EU stimulates the development of so much biomass to cover the ever increasing energy need without actually finding out whether it saves emissions," Trees Robijns of BirdLife International said.

Utilities argue biomass even from trees, rather than residues, can be sustainable when forests are managed properly and growth outpaces consumption.

A spokesman for RWE Innogy, which has a large biomass pellet plant in Georgia, the United States, said the company had "a very strong focus on key sustainability requirements." (Editing by James Jukwey)