Debate over climate benefits of bioenergy continues – new EFI study sheds light on the issue
On 12 October, the European Forest Institute (EFI) published a timely report on forest biomass, carbon neutrality and climate change mitigation. CEPF very much welcomes the report as the issue of carbon neutrality is a much debated topic in Brussels and there is no clear consensus among scientist on the issue, depending on their different points of views for addressing it.

The climate impact of bioenergy use is of critical importance in the EU since bioenergy is currently the largest renewable resource used. Although its relative share is slowly declining, woody biomass was still contributing around 50% to overall renewable energy production in 2015. 

Most EU Member States have in absolute terms increased the use of woody biomass for energy to reach their 2020 renewable energy targets. Further intensification of forest resource utilisation is discussed in several countries, driven also by the 2012 EU Bioeconomy Strategy. Moreover, the Commission is currently reviewing the Renewable Energy Directive and the sustainability policy for solid biomass will be published by the end of this year. 

The EFI report concludes that bioenergy can play an important role in climate change mitigation and there is a high risk of failing to meet long term climate targets without bioenergy. The promotion of forest bioenergy needs to reflect the variety of ways that forests and forest-related sectors contribute to climate change mitigation. There can be trade-offs between carbon sequestration, storage and biomass production. There can be also trade-offs between short- and long-term climate objectives. Important to consider is that a strong focus on short-term greenhouse gas targets may result in decisions that make long-term objectives more difficult to meet.

The report highlights that rather than debating the carbon neutrality of bioenergy, we should be concerned with the net climate change effects of bioenergy, assessed in the specific context where bioenergy policies are developed and bioenergy is produced. The study outlines the need to assess forest bioenergy in a holistic and context dependent way. 

Among many highly relevant topics, the study concludes that specifying which forest feedstock types should be used for bioenergy is not feasible and may prevent effective management of forest resources to meet multiple objectives, including climate change.

The report also talks about the cascading use. According to the publication, the cascading makes sense as a general rule but should not be a straightjacket. Applying a cascading principle that promotes the use of forest biomass for wood products ahead of bioenergy may not always deliver the greatest climate or economic benefits. The study recommends that it is important that cascading is applied with flexibility, and considering what is optimal for the specific regional circumstances such as feedstocks, industry and energy system setting. 

Reflecting to the previous statement on the cascading use, CEPF adds that whether or not bioenergy subsidies cause market distortions in some specific cases, it is highly questionable if cascading use guidelines made at EU level is the right tool to tackle the issue. The Commission is currently working with voluntary guidelines to be published in 2017.

The EFI report on forest biomass, carbon neutrality and climate change mitigation can be downloaded here.