Thursday, 14 May 2020
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Hi All

According to a report by the EU's Joint Research Centre (JRC), 59% of the EU's renewable energy consumption came from "biomass" in 2016 and most of that came from trees.

A letter to the EU Parliament signed by almost 800 scientists says:

To Members of the European Parliament,

As the European Parliament commendably moves to expand the renewable energy
directive, we strongly urge members of Parliament to amend the present directive to avoid
expansive harm to the world’s forests and the acceleration of climate change. The flaw in
the directive lies in provisions that would let countries, power plants and factories claim
credit toward renewable energy targets for deliberately cutting down trees to burn them for
energy. The solution should be to restrict the forest biomass eligible under the directive to
residues and wastes.

For decades, European producers of paper and timber products have generated electricity
and heat as beneficial by-products using wood wastes and limited forest residues. Since
most of these waste materials would decompose and release carbon dioxide within a few
years, using them to displace fossil fuels can reduce net carbon dioxide emissions to the
atmosphere in a few years as well. By contrast, cutting down trees for bioenergy releases
carbon that would otherwise stay locked up in forests, and diverting wood otherwise used
for wood products will cause more cutting elsewhere to replace them.

Even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will
increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries – as many studies
have shown – even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas. The reasons are
fundamental and occur regardless of whether forest management is “sustainable.” Burning
wood is inefficient and therefore emits far more carbon than burning fossil fuels for each
kilowatt hour of electricity produced. Harvesting wood also properly leaves some biomass
behind to protect soils, such as roots and small branches, which decompose and emit
carbon. The result is a large “carbon debt.” Re-growing trees and displacement of fossil fuels
may eventually pay off this “carbon debt’ but only over long periods. Overall, allowing the
harvest and burning of wood under the directive will transform large reductions otherwise
achieved through solar and wind into large increases in carbon in the atmosphere by 2050.
Time matters. Placing an additional carbon load in the atmosphere for decades means
permanent damages due to more rapid melting of glaciers and thawing of permafrost, and
more packing of heat and acidity into the world’s oceans. At a critical moment when
countries need to be “buying time” against climate change, this approach amounts to
“selling” the world’s limited time to combat it.

The adverse implications not just for carbon but for global forests and biodiversity are also
large. More than 100% of Europe’s annual harvest of wood would be needed to supply just
one third of the expanded renewable energy directive. Because demand for wood and
paper will remain, the result will be increased degradation of forests around the world. The
example Europe would set for other countries would be even more dangerous. Europe has
been properly encouraging countries such as Indonesia and Brazil to protect their forests,
but the message of this directive is “cut your forests so long as someone burns them for
energy.” Once countries invest in such efforts, fixing the error may become impossible. If
the world moves to supply just an additional 3% of global energy with wood, it must double
its commercial cuttings of the world’s forests.

By 1850, the use of wood for bioenergy helped drive the near deforestation of western
Europe even when Europeans consumed far less energy than they do today. Although coal
helped to save the forests of Europe, the solution to replacing coal is not to go back to
burning forests, but instead to replace fossil fuels with low carbon sources, such as solar and
wind. We urge European legislators to amend the present directive to restrict eligible forest
biomass to appropriately defined residues and wastes because the fates of much of the
world’s forests and the climate are literally at stake.

Also, here's a couple of links talking about the problems associated with biomass:

What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it OK to burn trees for energy?
more than a month ago
I was already aware of the controversy surrounding the use of biomass energy in the EU. However, I had no idea that it was such a large proportion. That's outrageous! There's nothing sustainable about felling trees for energy. Of course, using forestry waste is a different story.

Adam Thyer, Founder at GreenExecutive

more than a month ago
My understanding is (and please correct me if I'm wrong) that biomass is significantly more expensive than the latest solar and wind technologies which are also continuing to rapidly fall in cost. So the big question is, why does the EU Parliament continue to support and subsidise an energy source that's neither sustainable or economically viable?
more than a month ago
it all rather depends upon where the trees are coming from, some countries have sustainability standards around biomass (UK created its' own because there weren't existing standards for example) and the new RED II is bringing sustainability standards to the EU on this kind of biomass fuel. it's imperfect but it's moving towards only allowing existing agro forestry, eg Finland, or wastes from agro forestry, so in that sense these changes are already in process.
the EU doesn't subsidise these technologies though individual member states might, which is up to them. the main reason for using this technology is that it allows reduction of carbon intensity of existing coal powered stations prior to them being retired. DRAX in the UK has transitioned almost totally to biomass, but it's a temporary transition to get to a point where it can be retired and replaced not a new build.
Things like lignin combustion (coming from paper production) is far better than any other solution as lignin is toxic in the environment (it's basically tree defence) and when stripped out of paper the concentration is too high for environmental decomposition.
more than a month ago
There are numerous problems associate with using trees as fuel.

Some of the key issues are:

  • burning trees releases CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere
  • there is a carbon debt because the CO2 is released NOW, whereas it takes many years for new trees to grow
  • silviculture damages or destroys natural habitats thereby resulting in biodiversity loss
  • additional demand for trees is likely to increase the amount of land required for silviculture
  • additional demand for trees as biomass can increase the price of timber for other purposes.

Burning biowaste is less problematic. However, my understanding is that biowaste is typically only a very small amount of the total biomass being burned for energy production.
more than a month ago
Hi Gareth Mottram

You said that, "the main reason for using this technology is that it allows reduction of carbon intensity of existing coal powered stations prior to them being retired." However, the letter that Ben posted says, "Burning wood is inefficient and therefore emits far more carbon than burning fossil fuels for each kilowatt hour of electricity produced." If this claim is true, doesn't it mean that biomass is more carbon intensive than coal, not less? I understand that replanting trees can eventually repay this carbon debt, but my question relates to which fuel is emitting the most carbon in the present.

Please note that I am not trying to make a statement here, or engage you in a debate. I have no expertise in this area. It's just that biomass energy seems to be an important issue, so I'm trying to understand it more clearly.
more than a month ago
This paper suggest that biomass production is less energy and CO2 efficient than coal mining.
more than a month ago
Today, I stumbled across a Facebook post linking to this report by Chatham House which says:

Current biomass policy frameworks are not fit for purpose and require substantial changes to ensure they contribute to mitigating climate change rather than exacerbating it.

* The use of wood for electricity generation and heat has grown rapidly in recent years, but its real impact on the climate and on forests is controversial. Like the debate around transport biofuels a few years ago, this has become a highly contested subject with very few areas of consensus. This paper provides an overview of the debate around the impact of wood energy on the global climate, and provides recommendations for policymakers on the appropriate way forward.

* Although most renewable energy policy frameworks treat biomass as though it is carbon-neutral at the point of combustion, in reality this cannot be assumed, as biomass emits more carbon per unit of energy than most fossil fuels. Only residues that would otherwise have been burnt as waste or would have been left in the forest and decayed rapidly can be considered to be carbon-neutral over the short to medium term.

* One reason for the perception of biomass as carbon-neutral is the fact that, under international greenhouse gas accounting rules, its associated emissions are recorded in the land use rather than the energy sector. However, the different ways in which land use emissions are accounted for means that a proportion of the emissions from biomass may never be accounted for.

* In principle, sustainability criteria can ensure that only biomass with the lowest impact on the climate are used; the current criteria in use in some EU member states and under development in the EU, however, do not achieve this as they do not account for changes in forest carbon stock.

Adam Thyer, Founder at GreenExecutive

more than a month ago
Can anyone explain to me the politics behind the EU adopting biomass with such gusto?
more than a month ago
These graphs provide an insight insight into the growth of renewable energy in the UK. However, 8% of total energy production is from biomass and the trend is upward.
more than a month ago
Here's a similar letter objecting to biomass energy from 200 environmental scientists to the US Congress:

Dear Members of Congress,

As forest and climate change scientists and experts, we are writing to urge you to oppose legislative
proposals that would promote logging and wood consumption, ostensibly as a natural climate change
solution, based on claims that these represent an effective carbon storage approach, or claims that
biomass logging, and incinerating trees for energy, represents renewable, carbon-neutral energy.

We find no scientific evidence to support increased logging to store more carbon in wood products, such
as dimensional lumber or cross-laminated timber (CLT) for tall buildings, as a natural climate solution.
The growing consensus of scientific findings is that, to effectively mitigate the worst impacts of climate
change, we must not only move beyond fossil fuel consumption but must also substantially increase
protection of our native forests in order to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere and store more, not
less, carbon in our forests (Depro et al. 2008, Harris et al. 2016, Woodwell 2016, Erb et al. 2018, IPCC
2018, Law et al. 2018, Harmon 2019, Moomaw et al. 2019).

Furthermore, the scientific evidence does not support the burning of wood in place of fossil fuels as a
climate solution. Current science finds that burning trees for energy produces even more CO2 than
burning coal, for equal electricity produced (Sterman et al. 2018), and the considerable accumulated
carbon debt from the delay in growing a replacement forest is not made up by planting trees or wood
substitution (noted below). We need to increase growing forests to more rapidly close the gap between
emissions and removal of CO2 by forests, while we simultaneously lower emissions from our energy,
industrial and agricultural sectors.

In your deliberations on this serious climate change issue, we encourage you to consider the following:

• The logging and wood products industries suggest that most of the carbon in trees that are logged
and removed from forests will simply be stored in CLT and other wood products for buildings
instead of being stored in forest ecosystems. However, this is clearly incorrect. Up to 40% of the
harvested material does not become forest products and is burned or decomposes quickly, and a
majority of manufacturing waste is burned for heat. One study found that 65% of the carbon
from Oregon forests logged over the past 115 years remains in the atmosphere, and just 19% is
stored in long-lived products. The remainder is in landfills (Hudiburg et al. 2019).

• Logging in U.S. forests emits 617 million tons of CO2 annually (Harris et al. 2016). Further,
logging involves transportation of trucks and machinery across long distances between the forest
and the mill. For every ton of carbon emitted from logging, an additional 17.2% (106 million
tons of CO2) is emitted from fossil fuel consumption to support transportation, extraction, and
processing of wood (Ingerson 2007). In fact, the annual CO2 emissions from logging in U.S.
forests are comparable to yearly U.S. emissions from the residential and commercial sectors
combined (
sinks). The cumulative climate change impact of logging in the U.S. is even higher, since
logging causes substantial reductions in carbon sequestration and storage potential in forests due
to soil compaction and nutrient removal, and these combined impacts can often reduce forest
carbon storage potential by 30% or more (e.g., Elliott et al. 1996, Walmsley et al. 2009).

• The wood products industry claims that substituting wood for concrete and steel reduces the
overall carbon footprint of buildings. However, this claim has been refuted by more recent
analyses that reveal forest industries have been using unrealistic and erroneous assumptions in
their models, overestimating the long-term mitigation benefits of substitution by 2 to 100-fold
(Law et al. 2018, Harmon 2019). The climate impact of wood is even worse if the reduced forest
carbon sequestration and storage caused by nutrient loss and soil compaction from logging is
included, as discussed above.

In countless public communications, and at numerous Congressional hearings, industry representatives
have advocated for increased logging in the context of reducing wildland fire and related emissions.
While small-tree thinning can reduce fire intensity when coupled with burning of slash debris (e.g.,
Perry et al. 2004, Strom and Fulé 2007) under very limited conditions, recent evidence shows intensive
forest management characterized by young trees and homogenized fuels burn at higher severity (Zald &
Dunn 2018). Further, the extremely low probability (less than1%, Schoennagel et al. 2017) of thinned
sites encountering a fire where thinning has occurred limits the effectiveness of such activities to
forested areas near homes. Troublingly, to make thinning operations economically attractive to logging
companies, commercial logging of larger, more fire-resistant trees often occurs across large areas.

Importantly, mechanical thinning results in a substantial net loss of forest carbon storage, and a net
increase in carbon emissions that can substantially exceed those of wildfire emissions (Hudiburg et al.
2013, Campbell et al. 2012). Reduced forest protections and increased logging tend to make wildland
fires burn more intensely (Bradley et al. 2016). This can also occur with commercial thinning, where
mature trees are removed (Cruz et al. 2008, Cruz et al. 2014). As an example, logging in U.S. forests
emits 10 times more carbon than fire and native insects combined (Harris et al. 2016). And, unlike
logging, fire cycles nutrients and helps increase new forest growth.

We are hopeful that a new and more scientifically sound direction will be considered by Members that
emphasizes increased forest protections, and a shift away from consumption of wood products and forest
biomass energy, to help mitigate the climate crisis. We believe having a dialogue now would be
productive, and we could help members of your Committees to be more effective in achieving the
conservation and climate change goals that we share. We look forward to hearing from you and are
available to provide additional scientific sources and serve as a resource for your Committees as you
consider policy proposals on the climate crisis.


Lead Signatories

Adam Thyer, Founder at GreenExecutive

more than a month ago
It would appear that trees are not the only problem. The EU is also burning food!

This article says that regulations designed to “clean up” diesel pollution are resulting in huge amounts of palm oil being used as biodiesel.

The article then goes on to say that:
The new research released today by NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) uses data from OILWORLD, the industry's reference for vegetable oils markets. According to the latest EU data, 45% of global palm oil expansion since 2008 has caused deforestation. This is why palm oil diesel is three times worse for the climate than regular diesel. On average, food- and feed-based biodiesel emits at least 80% more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil diesel.
more than a month ago
It’s not just palm oil being burnt for energy, EU and US farmers are subsidised to grow maize, rye and sugar beet, probably other crops too, then subsidised again to convert them into natural gas or other gas through biodigestors to create energy. This is not only inefficient in energy terms it is also extremely damaging to soil and water health.
more than a month ago
Using organic waste to generate energy can be a good thing. However, I can't see how would ever make sense to burn lumber that could be use for purposes such as construction, furniture, or paper. Growing crops to make energy makes no sense to me either. We need to reduce the amount of land being use for agriculture.
more than a month ago
I recently read this article which says that the EU's biomass policies are currently under review. But who knows what the final policies will be. Hopefully, we will see the phasing-out of most biomass sources other than genuine waste.
more than a month ago
Here's another story about why burning trees for energy is a really bad idea:

Adam Thyer, Founder at GreenExecutive

more than a month ago
This article says there is no no EU-wide sustainability criteria for biomass. It also says that demand is expected to increase.

Adam Thyer, Founder at GreenExecutive

more than a month ago
Here's a story about a law suit against the EU for using biomass as "close to 60% of the bloc’s renewables, more than solar and wind power combined".

Adam Thyer, Founder at GreenExecutive

more than a month ago
I think it's crazy (or perhaps more accurately, dishonest) to claim that biomass is a sustainable source of energy. The reasons have been clearly outlined in the links above. The only exception is organic waste that can't be used in a more constructive way. However, this is only available in relatively small amounts.

Here's another story: "Europe’s wood pellet market is worsening environmental racism in the American South" that I found today.
more than a month ago
I believe that using biomass at scale is a big mistake. It is essential that we have trees to sequester carbon and forests to provide habitat for wild animals. We need more trees, not less! Furthermore, burning anything for energy contributes to air pollution which currently kills more people each year globally than cigarettes. The only biomass that should be burned is genuine waste and only then if there is not a more productive use available.
more than a month ago
This link includes a variety of EU documents with information about biomass:
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