The great EU biomass scam

gp049z71_550Most people don’t realise that 64% of the EU’s renewable energy is in fact biomass. The scam starts with UN and EU rules that say if you cut down a tree you don’t count the carbon it emits when you burn it. The assumption is that the tree will grow back again. The New Scientist (probably paywalled) has the story.

If you cut down a 50 year old oak tree it will take 50 years to grow back, so the immediate effect is to raise emissions. Moreover the roots will also rot, producing more emissions. But if left there the tree would have continued to grow, absorbing carbon. This function is lost. In practice too, the trees do not always regrow.

Furthermore, wood is a poor source of heat, far worse than coal. American firms are growing forests to produce wood pellets which are then shipped to Europe. So far the US authorities may change their rules to adopt the same carbon accounting methods as the EU. The big worry is that countries like Indonesia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will start cutting down their trees for energy too.

Leaving aside the effects on wildlife and other environmental concerns, using trees for biomass is also putting pressure on trees for paper and land use for food.

    Ignoring these effects can make some forms of bioenergy look good in theory when in reality they increase emissions and drive deforestation.

    For instance, a December 2015 report for the European Commission concluded that using more bioenergy could help reduce emissions – but it assumes indirect effects can be avoided.

    Even then, it found that if the use of forest biomass keeps expanding, there would be a net increase in emissions from 2030 due to this form of bioenergy, rather than a reduction.

    So what proportion of bioenergy increases emissions rather than reducing them? No one knows, says Joffe. “That’s part of the problem.”

    And little is being done about it. A few years ago when the UK government’s own scientists said that many forms of forest biomass increase emissions, the findings were ignored, Searchinger says. “They’ve ignored it because they’ve already committed,” he says. “And because they don’t know what else to do.”

Here’s the graph showing how renewable energy divides up in Europe:


Together these sources contribute over 12% of the EU’s energy consumption. That is not a great deal, so there is plenty of scope for this scam to get worse.

With some feedstocks other than wood they don’t actually know how much carbon is involved.

8 thoughts on “The great EU biomass scam”

  1. Brian, while it’s true that a degree of cynicism is warranted, I don’t think the picture is nearly as bleak as you’re painting. Firstly, a good proportion of biomass (about 1/3) is crop wastes that would otherwise rot (methane) without any energy extracted. Most of the timber is harvesting byproducts, and very little is directly harvested for firing purposes. Again, it would otherwise simply rot or be burned without energy capture.

    There is basically zero deforestation in Europe, the forests of Europe are in net terms definitively growing. There is very little “old growth” in terms we understand, and this area is not being harvested. So these are managed forests, and they are growing in area. Impacts on biodiversity would be minimal, isolated, in the scheme of things trivial.

    Two points you made are definitely worth defending though:
    * the fact that these emissions are occurring now and the draw down is in the future. Given the need for urgent action, this is important.
    * importation of wood pellets from north America. This is pretty silly, yes.

  2. Wilful, what I wrote is pretty much a precis of the Michael le Page article, minus some of the more vivid language, such as:

    “The Europeans are to some extent claiming reductions that are not real,” says Timothy Searchinger at Princeton University.


    “It’s a kind of madness,” says Searchinger.

    There is also a statement that if companies used such accounting procedures we would call it fraud.

    I think that everything you say is true, but there is an incentive to go beyond by-product and waste, especially in developing countries with equatorial forests.

    Five years ago I referenced:

    A new report suggests that we should be able to feed a growing population, conserve the environment and produce 20% of world energy needs from biomass by making “the best use of agricultural residues, energy crops and waste materials”.

    I think the UN and the EU need to keep this one under review.

  3. I am comfortable with the idea of using biowaste but mindful of the practicalities of using it at an industrial scale.
    However, I am also mindful of the jungles being cleared to allow palm oil to be produced for fuel manufacture.
    Also mindful of the way corn prices soared because corn was being diverted to allow the EU to meet its biofuel quote. Also aware of articles blaming the rising price of corn to so much unrest and misery in the middle east.
    We should keep in mind that we can produce transportable fuels using clean electricity, water and air. We should support biofuels with extreme caution.

  4. Thanks Brian,

    Sounds dodgy to me too.

    Seems to be based on a kind of steady state model of the biomass. In the long run, biomass is roughly constant, the model says.

    But as you point out, time scales are important too. If there is an animal species whose burning of wood is not roughly constant (growing, for example) then can we assume that other biological processes absorb the CO2?

    In some ways, Australia has a similar accounting problem. I don’t mean the effects of deforestation for grazing or intensive farming.

    I mean bushfires. When I asked if emissions from major bushfires were counted, I was told they are excluded because of long term regrowth.

    That’s OK only if the annual burning is roughly constant.

  5. John,

    You’re right: transport of fuels is important to consider.
    Petrol, diesel trucked around the country and cities.

    In Victoria, brown coal is 60% or so water. You don’t truck it. Why truck dirty water around??! So they burn it right next to where they dig it up.

    Gas is better, piped.

    Better still, as I guess you were suggesting, generate H2 right next to the vehicle garage or locally in the suburb/town.

  6. I did have an up to date of the EU energy mix, as distinct from electricity. This post, information from 2013, I think shows:

    Renewables contribute 26% of EU electricity, 17% of heating and cooling and 5% of transport, as the chart below shows.

    There’s a long way to go in transport.

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