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Bioenergy a driver of EU forest resilience, not deforestation

Bioenergy is the largest renewable in the European Union (EU) and woody biomass is the largest fuel source making up 69 percent of the sector's supply. However, contrary to a widely held belief that bioenergy is a driver of deforestation in Europe, the numbers suggest otherwise as a new Bioenergy Europe report on biomass supply reveals.

The main feedstock used by the European bioenergy sector is woody biomass, currently covering 69% of the sector’s supply. Agricultural biomass and biomass from waste represent a smaller portion and supply together 30% of the supply, although the European Commission forecasts a better mobilisation of agricultural residues and the use of perennial lignocellulosic energy crops in its policy scenarios (graphic courtesy Bioenergy Europe).

For the second time since its launch in 2007, the 2020 Statistical Report published by Bioenergy Europe (previously known as AEBIOM) is being split into different publications, each chapter covering a different aspect of bioenergy.

The sixth chapter of the Statistical Report 2020 looks at the current state of play of biomass supply, forest and land management, and the potential of agricultural biomass in the coming years.

The report notes that bioenergy is the main renewable energy source in the EU and its use diversifies Europe’s energy supply, creates growth, jobs, and lowers greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Woody biomass dominates

The main feedstock used by the bioenergy sector is woody biomass, currently covering 69 percent of the sector’s supply. Agricultural biomass and biomass from waste represent smaller portions, accounting for 30 percent combined.

The state of Europe’s forests, biodiversity preservation, and the role of Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) are high on the current EU policy agenda, with bioenergy often perceived as a major driver of deforestation.

However, based on the latest figures published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), Bioenergy Europe’s statistical report highlights that in 2020, Europe was covered by approximately 183 million hectares (ha) of “forests and other wooded lands” of which 162 million ha is forest.

Forest area and carbon stock density increase

This corresponds to 43 percent of the EU28 land area. The report points out the positive trends when it comes to net forest gain with an increase in forest area by 6,3 percent, between 1990 and 2020.

Furthermore, although there has been a decrease in the rate of forest area expansion, the EU28 forest stock has been growing in the past decades with an overall wood density increasing over the period – from 130 m3 wood/ha in 1990 to 174 m3/ha in 2020.

EU28 forests have been growing over the past decades. In 1990, European forests represented a total of 19,2 billion m3, meaning that the forest stock has increased by 47% in three decades. According to FAO, EU-28 forest coverage gained on average 482 000 hectares (ha) every year from 1990 to 2020 (graphic courtesy Bioenergy Europe).

As a result, the carbon stock in EU28 forests has increased by 23 percent between 1990 and 2020, from 20,3 billion tonnes of carbon in 1990 to 24,9 billion tonnes of carbon in 2020.

The report highlights that while bioenergy has tripled since 1990, from 41 Mtoe to 117 Mtoe in 2018, the percentage of wood removals for energy purposes – logging residues and thinnings – remains stable and represented in 2018, 23 percent of total wood removals.

This, the report says, demonstrates that bioenergy is not a driving force behind forest harvesting and that the sector increasingly uses residues from forest-based industries.

Provides market for damaged wood

The report also notes that woody biomass helps provide an outlet for damaged forests. On average, 1.3 percent of the EU28 forest area is affected annually by some form of damage and disturbance such as insects, disease, fire, severe weather events such as droughts, storms, and heavy snowfalls.

These disruptions cause unplanned salvage logging resulting in relatively high volumes of unmerchantable or unsaleable wood –  wood that on account of the damage sustained, no longer meets the quality criteria or physical characteristics required by wood processing industries such as sawmills, pulp- and paper mills, and panel-board industries.

While bioenergy has grown threefold in the last decades, the percentage of wood removed for energy purposes remains stable and represented in 2018, 23% of the total. This, Bioenergy Europe says, demonstrates that bioenergy is not a driving force behind forest harvesting and that the sector increasingly uses residues from forest-based industries (graphic courtesy Bioenergy Europe).

The report concludes that bioenergy is an important asset to climate change mitigation, both through the substitution of fossil fuels, but also to climate change adaptation and that sustainable forest management is key in reducing the risk of forest fires and diseases.

Bioenergy contributes by developing markets for low-value forestry residues and damaged wood which makes climate adaption measures more attractive and economically viable for forest owners while ensuring that European forests become more resilient against future disturbances.

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