Biomass in the EU: has the latest energy directive done enough to calm fears?

10 September 2018 (Last Updated September 7th, 2018 09:37)

The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive has been recast, raising the renewables target and establishing a clear and stable regulatory framework on self-consumption. Despite the positives there has also been criticism, especially over the definition of biomass. What were these concerns and what has the recast changed?

Biomass in the EU: has the latest energy directive done enough to calm fears?
The most contentious aspect of RED is its simplistic inclusion of biomass as a renewable, sustainable source of energy. Credit: Courtesy of the Oregon Department of Forestry

In 2009, the Juncker Commission set about building policies to ensure “a resilient Energy Union and a forward-looking climate change policy”. As part of this, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) was created, which initially set the binding target of 20% final energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020.

Since its creation, the RED has been revised and evaluated a number of times and now forms part of the European Union’s (EU) Clean Energy Package (2016). In June, RED was again recast at a meeting of the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council. Amendments were made to ensure that targets and frameworks are in line with the progress Europe is making in creating a greener energy network.

“Renewables are good for Europe, and today, Europe is good at renewables,” said Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete. “This deal is a hard-won victory in our efforts to unlock the true potential of Europe’s clean energy transition.”

So how has the directive changed?

Successes bringing change

The biggest change to the RED is the increase in the renewable energy target following a multitude of success stories around Europe. “This new ambition will help us meet our Paris Agreement goals and will translate into more jobs, lower energy bills for consumers and less energy imports,” said Cañete. “I am particularly pleased with the new European target of 32%. The binding nature of the target will also provide additional certainty to the investors.”

In Europe renewables now account for over 30% of electricity production, up dramatically from just 12% in 2000. More energy is produced from renewables than from coal and natural gas, with wind, solar and biomass producing 20.9% in 2017, compared to coal’s 20.6%.

This is being driven by EU-wide initiatives, together with commitments made by a number of governments. In particular, the UK and Germany have made massive strides in the adoption of renewable technologies, accounting for 56% of the EU’s overall growth in renewables between 2014 and 2017.

But more can – and should – still be done. The recasting of the RED seeks to ease areas of renewables adoption, such as through streamlining and the reduction of administrative procedures.

“It lays down rules on financial support to electricity produced from renewable sources, self-consumption of renewable electricity, and renewable energy use in the heating and cooling and transport sectors, regional cooperation between Member States and with third countries, guarantees of origin, administrative procedures and information and training,” the RED states.

The uptake of small-scale renewables, such as domestic solar panels, should receive a boost thanks to the recast. Updates have clarified self-consumption, importantly enforcing that producers of energy will be paid for whatever they export to the grid.

“Member States shall, in particular, encourage local and regional administrative bodies to include heating and cooling from renewable energy sources in the planning of city infrastructure, where appropriate, and consult with the network operators to reflect the impact of energy efficiency and demand response programs as well as specific provisions on renewable self-consumption and renewable energy communities, on the infrastructure development plans of the operators,” the directive reads.

Rethinking biomass’s carbon neutral credentials

Probably the most contentious aspect of RED is its simplistic inclusion of biomass as a renewable, sustainable source of energy. Over the past year, the European Academics Science Advisory Council (EASAC) has run a campaign to revaluate biomass from forests as carbon neutral.

“There are significant dangers of shooting ourselves in the climate foot if we do not differentiate effectively between climate positive and climate negative uses of forest biomass,” said EASAC’s environment programme director Michael Norton.

“As our recent report on negative emissions has shown, we are already in danger of not meeting the Paris Agreement targets. If the EU and Member States continue to count all forest biomass as renewable energy, and not validate their climate impacts on a case-by-case basis, we may even be increasing the EU’s carbon emissions through our ‘renewable’ energy policies”, he added.

Clarifications were made in the recent recast, which the commission says will improve the sustainability of biomass. This includes limiting food and feed crop-based biomass. However, the regulations around forest biomass, which is the key concern, remain unchanged.

“Land should not be converted for the production of agricultural raw material for biofuels, bioliquids and biomass fuels if its carbon stock loss upon conversion could not, within a reasonable period, taking into account the urgency of tackling climate change, be compensated by the greenhouse gas emission saving resulting from the production and use of biofuels, bioliquids and biomass fuel,” the directive states.

EASAC, along with other environmental groups, has criticised the definition as it’s based on the flawed carbon neutrality argument. This states that any carbon released during the burning of wood or other forest biomass will be compensated by the uptake of carbon from the atmosphere by plants that replace it.

However, it can take decades and in some cases hundreds of years for the carbon to be absorbed by vegetation. Given the pressing need to decarbonise, this is not a sustainable energy source.

“Renewable energy policies in the European Union are increasingly ambitious, which is a positive trend,” said EASAC’s energy programme director William Gillett. “But policy-makers must ensure that renewable energy is truly renewable within the relevant policy timeframe. Bioenergy from forest biomass with long carbon payback periods is not renewable in the context of the EU’s Paris commitments.”

The right path for renewables

RED provides a positive framework for renewable energy development for Europe, but there is still more that can be done. Work around biomass, among other aspects of policy, should be enhanced to ensure that Europe remains a world leader for renewable energy.

The European Parliament and the Council must now formally approve the agreement, after which point it will be published in the Official Journal of the Union and come into effect within 20 days. Following this, Member States will have 18 months in which to transpose the new aspects of the directive into law.

“I now call on the European Parliament and the Council to continue negotiating with the same commitment and complete the rest of the proposals of the Clean Energy for All Europeans Package,” said Cañete. “This will put us on the right path towards the Long-Term Strategy that the Commission intends to present by the end of this year.”