Biomass currently makes up 60% of all European renewable energy, with the heating and cooling sector the largest end-user, according to EU statistics. Following a July 2021 proposal from the European Commission to revise the renewable energy directive, the Parliament adopted its position in September which aims at limiting the amount of biomass that can be burned.
This is achieved through the exclusion of certain types of ‘primary woody biomass’ from what is considered renewable energy, as well as through a cap on its usage. The Parliament’s proposal to exclude some primary woody biomass from the directive has proven controversial, with some governments concerned it could jeopardise energy security.
“The real challenge that we are facing within the next two to three years is actually to address energy security, and basically keeping ourselves warm and our industries afloat,” said Pauline Lucas, policy director at Euroheat and Power, the international network for district energy.
This calls for the use of “all sustainable heating sources that we have at hand” – including woody biomass, she told participants at a EURACTIV event on Thursday (1 December).
Bioenergy represents 20% of the energy mix in district heating across the EU. And according to Lucas, biomass will remain an important resource to decarbonise the heating sector, phase out fossil fuels, and recover wood residues that cannot be used for other purposes.
Limiting its use “could really worsen the decarbonisation pathway of our sector,” Lucas warned, saying it risked driving the market away from district heating. “In terms of the value chain, this could have quite far-reaching consequences,” she added.
Biomass crowding out investments in wind, solar
Bioenergy has been criticised by environmental groups who say burning wood drives deforestation, destroys natural habitats, and undermines forests acting as carbon sinks in the fight against climate change. According to them, policymakers should stop encouraging the burning of primary wood by excluding it from the EU’s renewable energy targets.
“I really wonder how you can decarbonise anything by burning wood,” said Martin Pigeon from FERN, an international NGO campaigning to protect forests. For an equal amount of heat or electricity, burning wood releases more CO2 than burning gas, oil and even coal, Pigeon highlighted, saying that the forestry industry is “contributing to massive degradation of the land sink”.
“When we hear about net-zero, the net is just forests. When you talk about land, it’s the second biggest sink we have after the oceans,” he explained. Pigeon also remarked that the possibility to count biomass as renewable energy allows some EU countries like Hungary to reach their renewable energy targets mostly thanks to bioenergy, thus delaying investments in wind and solar.
“What is the signal that the EU wants to send investors about the future of its energy? Is it burning wood again, like we’ve done for one million years already? Or do we want something that’s actually cleaner and that is not done at the expense of our health, at the expense of forests, and of our future?” he asked.