Europe Fine-Tunes Biomass Sustainability Standards

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The European Commission confirmed on Thursday that it believes legally binding sustainability criteria for biomass used to generate heat and power are not necessary in Europe, thus ending a long process by which the European Union body has debated the utility of a supranational scheme.

The Commission, however, adopted a report on sustainability requirements for the use of solid biomass and biogas in electricity, heating, and cooling. The report makes recommendations on sustainability criteria to member states and encourages them to introduce schemes at the national level.

This strategy minimizes the risk of the development of varied and possibly incompatible criteria at the national level, leading to barriers to trade and limiting the growth of the bio-energy sector in the European Union.

The decision is linked to the Renewable Energy Directive adopted in 2009, which sets up sustainability criteria for biofuels and bioliquids. The directive provides that the Commission should report on requirements for a sustainability scheme for biomass other than biofuels and bioliquids. The most recent report fulfills this obligation.

The recommended criteria relate to:

( a) a general prohibition on the use of biomass from land converted from forest, other high carbon stock areas and highly biodiverse areas;

(b) a common greenhouse gas calculation methodology which could be used to ensure that minimum greenhouse gas savings from biomass are at least 35 percent (rising to 50 percent in 2017 and 60 percent in 2018 for new installations) compared to the E.U.’s fossil energy mix;

(c) the differentiation of national support schemes in favour of installations that achieve high energy conversion efficiencies; and

(d) monitoring of the origin of biomass.

The report is accompanied by an impact assessment which shows that binding criteria would impose substantial costs on European economic actors. At least 90 percent of the biomass currently consumed in the European Union is sourced from European forest residues and by-products of other industries.

Europe’s biomass power industry is enjoying a bit of a renaissance of late with a projected 50 percent growth for the continent’s biomass capacity by 2013 due in large part to a wave of wood-fired power plants starting up throughout the United Kingdom and France (see report PDF).

Biomass for heat and power criteria center around avoiding knocking down forests which act as carbon sinks and unnecessarily burning energy to transport wood chips from far away places. One of the few successes of the United Nation’s climate-change talks in Copenhagen was the increasing acceptance of the REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) initiative, which suggests that biomass criteria could be supported worldwide.

Most entities throughout Europe support at least nonbinding sustainability criteria, but also recognize that the existing framework may be sufficient. Morten Thoroe, secretary general of the Confederation of European Forest Owners (CEPF) notes:

The risks of using unsustainable biomass are low.  The E.U. biomass production is covered already by the existing framework for agriculture, forestry and environment. These include the cross-compliance rules, environmental legislation, sustainable forest management practice and voluntary forest certification scheme.

Günther Oettinger, Commissioner responsible for energy, explains:

Biomass is one of the most important resources for reaching our renewable energy targets. It already contributes more than half of renewable energy consumption in the E.U., providing a clean, secure and competitive energy resource. With this report, the Commission provides recommendations to Member States concerning sustainability criteria for solid biomass and biogas.  A review is foreseen in 18 months in order to assess whether the scheme needs to be modified, including through the introduction of some mandatory standards.

Mackinnon Lawrence is an attorney, principal consultant with Biomass Advisors, and editor & publisher of Biomass Intel. Article appearing courtesy Biomass Intel.

photo: Frank Wuestefeld

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