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Facts, not fiction, needed on the role of sustainable woody biomass for energy

Facts, not fiction, needed on the role of sustainable woody biomass for energy
Europe is facing a hard winter season due to Russia's war in Ukraine and the question is where enough electricity and heat will come from at affordable prices?

Bioenergy from wood contributes to Europe’s energy security and is part of a sustainable energy mix. Policy making should be based on facts, not on fiction says Dr Paul Bennett, Chair of the Executive Committee of IEA Bioenergy commenting on the upcoming Planetary vote in the European Parliament on the Renewable Energy Directive (RED III) next week.

Urgent action is required to move away from the reliance on fossil fuels, both for energy security and for the climate.

But there are campaigns currently being run against bioenergy from wood that misrepresent on-the-ground forestry practice. This is dangerously short-sighted and ignores broader environmental and social implications. Policy making should be based on facts, not on fiction, cautions Dr Paul Bennett.

IEA Bioenergy, and also the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission, have published reports to dispel misconceptions and misrepresentations in relation to forest biomass.

Facts are:

  • Forest bioenergy is an important part of energy provision in Europe – particularly for heat production – which respond to the current energy demand and the security demands in this critical political situation. Over 90 percent of biomass that is used for energy is derived from European resources.
  • Forests that are sustainably managed continue to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and provide – next to timber or pulpwood – also important amounts of low-quality wood resources that can be used for energy. No forests have to be cut down for it.
  • Dr Paul Bennett
    Dr Paul Bennett Chair of the Executive Committee of IEA Bioenergy (photo courtesy Craig Robertson).

    Forest biomass used for energy is predominantly residues and low-quality wood resources. The Joint Research Centre of the European Commission found that about 50 percent of the wood used for bioenergy in the EU is derived from secondary products, such as forest-based industry by-products and recovered post-consumer wood, 17 percent from treetops, branches, and other residues, and 20 percent from stemwood – which is mostly coppice wood, small stem thinning wood and harvested stems of poor quality that cannot be used in sawmills or pulp and paper production.

In other words, the wood used for bioenergy is not high-quality lumber, but typically comprises thinnings, low-quality wood, salvage wood, harvest logging residues, processing residues, or wood waste.

Any harvesting of biomass – be it for bioenergy, construction material, paper, or other use – should occur within sustainability boundaries. Sustainable forest management schemes such as FSC or PEFC endorsed schemes contain clear requirements for maintaining forests and their biodiversity stressed Dr Paul Bennett.

Many countries have adopted similar forest management principles in their national or regional forestry legislations.

Moreover, in the European context, the recast of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) imposes further requirements to minimize the risk of using forest biomass derived from unsustainable practices.

The Directive was to be transposed into national law by all EU Member States before June 30, 2021, and its sustainability requirements must be met also by imported biomass. The ongoing campaigns often ignore the many steps that have already been taken toward sustainable forest management, particularly in Europe and North America Dr Bennett said.

A fundamental difference

Fossil fuel use causes a linear flow of carbon from geologic stores to the atmosphere.

Just comparing CO2 emissions of fossil fuels and bioenergy at the exhaust – as is sometimes done – misses this fundamental difference between biogenic and fossil carbon. As long as harvests do not exceed carbon uptake in the forest, the use of woody biomass does not increase atmospheric CO2 concentration, Dr Bennett remarked.

According to him, the most important action now is – besides ensuring energy access and increased energy independence – to transform energy and transport systems as soon as possible so that we can leave fossil carbon in the ground.

Sustainable bioenergy – also from wood – is available now, and is compatible with existing energy infrastructure, enabling immediate substitution of coal, natural gas, or petroleum fuels. It, therefore, plays a significant role in supporting energy system transformation to achieve net zero targets, ended Dr Paul Bennett.

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