EC rules out immediate EU action on biomass sustainability

The European Commission has confirmed it does not plan to address sustainability concerns before 2020

Most of future supplies are expected to come from North America
Most of future supplies are expected to come from North America

Higher carbon savings could be expected from the bioenergy sector after 2020 to ensure it remains sustainable and to promote best practice and technological innovation, the European Commission has suggested in a policy paper.

But the Commission rules out any EU-level action to address sustainability concerns for the period to 2020. This is intended to give member states a stable regulatory environment for meeting the EU’s 2020 climate and energy goals, although the Commission will continue to monitor the situation.

The paper, released last week, also reiterates the promise that the Commission made in January’s 2030 climate and energy framework to develop an improved biomass policy for the post-2020 period.

Five member states – Belgium, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK – have their own national sustainability criteria for biomass from forests or the agricultural biomass used in anaerobic digestion, or are developing them. However, the Commission says these are broadly consistent and not likely to distort the EU market.

It is also confident that the vast majority of biomass used for heat and power in the EU today provides significant greenhouse gas savings when compared to fossil fuels, although it admits some uses can have a negligible or negative impact and that there are a number of uncertainties.

At the moment, a carbon savings of 70% compared to fossil fuels is considered good practice, the Commission says. New figures from its Joint Research Centre show electricity and heat generated in EU plants from European, Russian and Baltic wood chips would meet this requirement. The savings are lower for wood pellets.

Most manure-fed biogas installations would also achieve a 70% saving but the figures are more variable for maize silage and biowaste. In some cases, these plants emit more greenhouse gases over their lifecycle than fossil fuels.

The Commission’s analysis of member states’ renewable energy action plans suggests the EU will need to import an increasing amount of biomass, reaching around 15% of primary bioenergy supply by 2020. Most of this will come from North America.

Commission energy officials drafted sustainability standards for biomass last year but the proposals were dropped following opposition from other departments and a number of member states and industry stakeholders.

The paper also highlights other policies that have a bearing on biomass and biogas sustainability, including the Commission’s forestry strategy, the Common Agricultural Policy and GHG accounting rules for land use, land use change and forestry.

FOLLOW UP: Commission paper on solid and gaseous biomass plus JRC paper on carbon savings

A version of this article first appeared in ENDS Europe, ENDS Waste & Bioenergy's sister publication 

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