60% of Europe’s renewable energy comes from biomass. That’s largely the burning of wood to create electricity. FM4’s Klimanews Weekly asks whether this is really green energy?
By Chris Cummins, 21.01.2022
It’s important to look at the fine print. That’s true in all aspects of life and especially true when it comes to examining the European Union’s climate strategy.
Brussels raised some eyebrows when investment in nuclear power and the fossil fuel gas were included as green investments under the EU Taxonomy mechanism.
But there’s fine print in the loudly trumpeted EU renewable boom.
Currently 60% of EU renewable energy comes from biomass. That’s the exploitation of organic matter, including crops used for fuel and even organic waste (sewage) for heating. In terms of electricity creation, it usually involves the burning of wood pellets in power stations. Large coal power plants, such as Drax in northern England, have simply been adapted to burn wood instead of coal.
“Burning forests for so-called renewable energy is bad for the climate, it’s bad for biodiversity and it’s bad for human health,” says Environmental campaigner Luke Chamberlain of the Forest Defence Alliance.
He was one of the many activists who demonstrated recently outside the European Parliament against biomass energy. “It sinks our climate policy. It is a fraudulent energy policy that makes the climate worse, not better,” he says.
Luke’s criticism of biomass is that, just like the exploitation of fossil fuels, it’s a burning technology. Luke calls such technology “anachronistic” in a world of solar power and wind energy. Indeed, Drax power station’s own figures admit the carbon emissions per unit of electricity are actually higher for wood chips than for coal.
Burning fuel, whether it is coal or wood, puts smoke into the air. That doesn’t just contain carbon but all sorts of environmental toxins that are poisoning the air we breathe. The WHO says air pollution contributes to the premature deaths of 400,000 Europeans every year. If we compare that to COVID-linked fatalities, you soon realize this isn’t an issue to be trifled with.
The Carbon Cycle
The biomass industry bristles at being compared to coal power. Coal was created through the gradual decay of organic material, including trees, over the course of millions of years. The biomass cycle is much quicker. If you replace a tree that has been burned with a new tree - a sapling - then over its lifetime that tree will eventually suck the carbon back down out of the atmosphere.
“These crops and trees used in biomass have captured this carbon from the atmosphere in recent times,” argues Kjell Andersson of the Swedish Bioenergy Association (SVEBIO). “For plants in agriculture, it is done every year in the fields. And in the forests, they do it constantly year by year. We only harvest about the same amount of carbon as these trees in the forest sequester every year. So, it’s a balance.”
„Using forests is not a solution to the climate crisis.“
We should say it is a balance “eventually” adds Karlheinz Erb from the Institute of Social Ecology at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna. “Under certain circumstances, if we have a decent spatial and timescale over the timescale of hundreds of years, biomass is carbon neutral.”
But Europe has committed to climate neutrality by 2050, so we are not working in these time scales. There is too much carbon in the atmosphere and this is dangerously destabilizing the planet. We should be working very hard on reducing the carbon in the atmosphere now, not adding to it in the assumption it will be sucked back down in a later, argues Karlheinz.
Trees are currently doing that, forests are an excellent carbon sink and should be left standing.
“If we deplete stocks, biomass is not carbon neutral. And of course, if we use a forest in comparison of not using the forests, we are depleting the stocks. That’s the story. Among scientists it is actually more or less accepted today that using forests is not a solution to the climate crisis.
European Forests Are Actually Growing
The European Commission, which staunchly defends the policy of subsidizing biomass energy, points out that around 50% of the woody biomass used comes from the waste products of trees that have been harvested for other uses – for example, wood pellets are often made from the branches or wood-shavings.
There’s also an interesting historical context worth mentioning. In many parts of Europe forests have growing rather than shrinking over the past 200 years, including in Scandinavia where much of the wood-based biomass is harvested. This is actually due to the rise of fossil fuels. Before we used coal and oil, wood was the main source of fuel for most Europeans and was massively under pressure.
Kjell Andersson points to this regrowth as an argument for the sustainability of the biomass industry:
“Critics look at only one single tree or or one harvest of trees in one area, but they don’t look at that whole forest. If you look at the whole forest, there is a good balance. We have more carbon in the forests in Europe today than we had had for decades. You have to look at not a single tree, but you have to look at the whole forest
„Don’t Trade The Climate Crisis For The Biodiversity Crisis“
“That still ignores the fact that if you burn wood, that carbon was outside of the atmosphere and then it’s inside the atmosphere once you burn it,” retorts anti-biomass campaigner Luke Chamberlain. “No matter how you spin this, you can’t get around the fact that burning wood makes climate change worse.”
Karlheinz Erb of the BOKU says there’s another massive issue that should be at the forefront of our minds.
We can’t think of forests as simply sources of energy. They provide a host of what we call “environmental services”, for example regulating our water supplies and help us be more drought resistant. They are also habitats as well for plants and animals.
Biodiversity is Collapsing
Biodiversity is collapsing across the globe and Europe is losing more and more species year after year. Karl-Heinz describes the biodiversity crisis as equally urgent as its inseparable cousin the climate crisis.
“When it comes to biomass we know that the more we harvest, the more pressure we put on ecosystems. The more we change the ecosystems, the more we affect biodiversity. And the bidiversity crisis is a serious crisis because we don’t know what is actually happening. We only know the resilience of ecosystems is linked to biodiversity.”
Don’t Burn It, Build With It
Karlheinz Erb says he’s not against using wood products; he just thinks we should value wood higher and put it to more sustainable use. Using wood for building is an excellent alternative to concrete and then the wood we have harvested is useful for decades. Wood is a beautiful and noble material, it is a shame to send it up in smoke.
There is, however, an elephant in the room here, and it’s quite a big elephant. We use a huge amount of electricity in Europe. We have pledged to replace fossil fuels we have until now relied on to create this massive energy use. But we have made that pledge before we have the capacity to fully replace fossil fuels.
Currently we don’t have enough solar or wind capacity. There are also concerns about the environmental impact of hydropower.
There Is No Perfect Solution
There is no perfect solution for energy production and we are going to have to make some compromises. Kjell Andersson says the critics of biomass are delaying the end of the fossil fuels era.
“They making it much more difficult for the European Union to reach its climate targets. Without bioenergy. This is going to be virtually impossible. Biomass makes up about 60 percent of all renewable energy in the European Union, and it will be an essential part of reaching the targets in the coming years”.
Biomass Or More Nuclear Power?
Indeed, he says that if we don’t support biomass as a solution to the climate crisis, then we’ll end up seeing more nuclear power stations being built in Europe. “I think what we will see is probably much more campaigning for nuclear power in the coming years. I think the environmental movement has to make a decision about which road to take in the coming years.”
But activist Luke Chamberlain says it is not a choice between biomass or fossil fuels or nuclear. There are other ways out of this mess. “Every euro spent on burning wood is one euro less spent on making our buildings more efficient, making insulating our houses. Energy efficiency and putting that into true low emissions technologies. Burning stuff is a technology that belongs to the past. We need to move away from burning things for our energy needs.”
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