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Will Europe’s ‘Fit for 55’ Climate Package Make Room for Sustainable Biomass?

August 12, 2021
Author: Larry Sullivan

As part of the European Green Deal (and the European Climate Law), the EU has established a binding target of achieving climate neutrality by 2050, which will require a massive decrease in current greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels in the coming decades. As an intermediary step towards reaching climate neutrality, the EU has raised its previous 2030 climate ambitions by committing to cut GHG emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

To help formalize and accelerate the development of this intermediary step, the new “Fit for 55” package contains a set of proposals to revise and update EU legislation already on the books. The scheme is broad in scope and encompasses renewables, energy efficiencies, energy performance of buildings, land use management, energy taxation, industrial effort sharing and emissions trading.

The rollout of the plan has received plenty of press and praise, though Bioenergy Europe, the leading voice for developing sustainable bioenergy markets in the EU, has a commonsense recommendation for its decision makers: “If the EU really wants to deliver on its Green Deal ambitions for climate and biodiversity, the new sustainability criteria in the Fit for 55 package need to be science- and practice-based, enabling a complementary and not competing range of renewables, including bioenergy.”

Bioenergy Europe notes that it is supportive of the objectives in the Fit for 55 package, though it “regrets that the new sustainability framework for bioenergy is poorly designed in both form and content.”

Bioenergy Europe adds:

“In 2020, energy generation was responsible for 45% of the EU’s GHG emissions in 2018 according to the European Environment Agency. This represents a considerable carbon footprint, despite renewables having proved resilient to the COVID crisis and the drive towards investments in clean energy generation due to high CO2 prices.

Clearly, if we’re going to successfully decarbonise our energy system, we need a wide range of available renewable energy sources working in tandem. We need them to be complementary and not in competition.

“The EU can seize the current opportunity and avoid such risks by ensuring the design of the new sustainability criteria is consistently science- and practice-based. Such an approach includes taking into consideration the following five actions:

  1. Maintain the Risk-Based Approach (RBA) as the core principle of biomass sustainability.
  2. Recognise that retroactive application of existing GHG emissions requirements is not simply dependent on cosmetic changes to sourcing policy.
  3. View sustainability as a multifaceted concept that encompasses not only environmental considerations but also equally relevant socio-economic factors.
  4. Consider cost-compliance for small operators.
  5. Work on evidence-based sustainability governance for the bioeconomy”

The risk moving forward is that the Fit for 55 package will create a “top-down” approach that makes it increasingly difficult for members to achieve their targets. “It contains burdensome retroactive measures which will be especially punitive to SMEs, which are the pillars of the local economies in rural areas. These retroactive measures could prevent the penetration of renewables and keep the EU on a trajectory of heavy fossil fuel use.”

Bioenergy is the only renewable energy source capable of providing heating and cooling, electricity and transport fuel. How is the EU currently utilizing renewable resources?


The Ongoing Case for Sustainable Biomass

Currently, Europe’s largest single source of renewable energy is sustainable biomass, which is a cornerstone of the EU’s low-carbon energy transition. For the last decade, forest resources in the US Southeast have helped to meet existing goals—as they will with future goals. This heavily forested region exported over 7 million metric tons of sustainable biomass to the EU and UK in 2020, and it has the capacity to sustainably increase its production to 35 million metric tons.

There are five principles to help understand what constitutes sustainable biomass, how it supports forest growth in the US Southeast, and how it can contribute to achieving the Fit for 55 climate goals:

  1. Sustainable biomass is sourced from forests where forest inventory and carbon stocks are stable or increasing. Steady increases in forest inventory mean emissions from biomass are quickly sequestered by the continually growing forest landscape from which it is sourced.

  2. In the US, sustainable biomass represents a tiny fraction of the forest products industry. Each year, only 4% of the forest is harvested in this region leaving the remaining 96% to keep growing. Of that 4% that is harvested, roughly 3% is used for biomass.

  3. Forest tracts in the US Southeast are not harvested for biomass. Wood from a single tract of land typically supplies multiple markets, including sawmills, solid wood products, pulp and paper, among others.

  4. Sustainable biomass is produced from low-value wood that is created as a by-product of a traditional timber harvest. Forest tracts are typically managed for high-value sawtimber, which generate the most revenue for landowners. Some trees (namely “pulpwood”) that do not meet the specifications for sawtimber are cascaded for use as biomass, which is in keeping with the principle of using wood fiber for its greatest climate benefit. Pulpwood typically comprises +/-30% of the volume from a sawtimber harvest; it is a “come-along” byproduct of a final harvest, not a primary incentive for harvest.

  5. Biomass is a small market but helps forest owners keep planting trees. Private citizens own 86% of the forestland in the US Southeast. Strong demand for forest products, like biomass, incentivize landowners to continue the cycle of planting and harvesting, versus converting their forestland to other, more lucrative uses. This demand helps landowners preserve and manage their forest to promote wildlife and biodiversity in the region.

Renewable energy development is going to continue to increase because climate change pressures are driving it. The broader deployment will be directed, at a minimum, by social license to operate and (hopefully) by sound policy as an enhancement. While the Fit for 55 package represents an accelerated push towards innovation and carbon neutrality, its architects need to be mindful of the existing technologies, solutions and stakeholders that exist across the value chain. Enabling a complementary range of renewable resources that includes sustainable biomass is a logical first step.

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