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EU policy is based on the assumption that burning biomass, such as wood pellets, doesn’t mean more carbon because greenhouse gases (GHGs) are sucked up by growing trees, according to a report by Transport & Environment, BirdLife Europe and the European Environmental Bureau. But this policy ignores the effect of changes in land use. As a result up to 7% of carbon emissions in the ETS escape through the loophole.
The report also highlighted a lack of information on where the biomass comes from. 98% of pellets from the US wood-pellet industry go to Europe, despite the US National Resources Defence Council warning of unsustainable practices being widespread and unregulated in the sector.
Carlos Calvo Ambel, energy policy analyst at T&E, said: ‘Giving biomass a zero-rating in the ETS is like signing a blank cheque – you never know what you are going to get. The absence of sustainability criteria and full carbon accounting for biomass frequently leads to more carbon emissions. In the case of American wood pellets exported to the EU, it is clear there is a problem in the US and Europe is responsible for it.’
T&E and its partners say reassessing the zero-rating would allow the EU ETS to better reflect the total emissions of producing and using biomass, with only actual emissions savings being allowed to count for zero in the ETS. It would also help to stop perverse incentives that could lead to increases in GHG emissions and solve the existing surplus of allowances in the system.
T&E is also part of a coalition of 10 environmental organisations that have called for key policy changes needed to promote sustainable bioenergy practices and avoid further negative impacts by bioenergy and a repeat of the biofuels fiasco. These include limits on the use of biomass for energy generation, introduction of comprehensive and binding sustainability criteria, and correct carbon accounting for biomass.
Biomass consumption is projected to increase by 40% by 2020, according to the Commission, and at least 15% will have to be imported, weakening Europe’s energy independence. The time lag from the release of carbon through burning to its absorption by plant growth can be up to 500 years.