Several European countries who are considered leaders in climate protection owe their apparently good emission reductions to biomass. These might turn out to look quite different in the future, if carbon-accounting under the Emissions Trading System (ETS) were to be based on science and the real effects on climate. As the European Commission works on a revision of its central climate policy tool, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council suggests a radically new standard.
“Labelling forest biomass as renewable has a perverse impact on the climate. Much of the biomass employed in Europe is anything but carbon neutral. Current accounting rules under the emission trading scheme let certain power plants and countries shine as climate pioneers although they actually damage the climate”, said Prof. Michael Norton, EASAC’s Environment Programme Director.
“EASAC’s and many other scientists’ work has shown that swapping coal with biomass in power stations often does not reduce, but increases net emissions to the atmosphere, when the whole life cycle is properly accounted for. The negative impact on climate may persist for many decades and thus increase the risk of overshooting Paris agreement targets, explains Norton. “Today’s carbon accounting rules under the ETS that allow biomass stack emissions to be ignored, give forest biomass a free ride – despite its massive climate effects. From a scientific standpoint, not correcting this mistake is climate hypocrisy.”
The scientists call upon EU lawmakers to introduce a new requirement that net carbon emissions from biomass power stations be properly accounted for and declared under the Emissions Trading System. It should not be possible to just assume that millions of tons of carbon coming out of a power station stack are ‘zero’. The ETS should be reformed to link accounting to the real effects on CO2 levels in the atmosphere. This will require calculating the ‘carbon payback period’ for each biomass facility and its supply chain. Regulators need to know how long it will take until the initial perverse effects of biomass on climate are overcome and net reductions in atmospheric CO2 concentrations achieved.
“Since recent estimates are that 1.5 °C may be exceeded in 10-20 years, an acceptable payback period should be no longer than 5 to 10 years”, said Norton. The concept would ensure that the most damaging facilities have to report their emissions in the same way as those using fossil fuels.
“I’d expect this to have an impact on how we look on countries like Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, the UK, and others who use a lot of biomass. This places challenges for such countries to reach their renewable energy targets with less climate-damaging biomass. But much more would be achieved in tackling climate change if the huge subsidies currently given to biomass could be diverted to technologies that really helped the climate,” concluded Norton.
Responding to the EASAC statement, Almuth Ernsting of environmental organisation Biofuelwatch commented:
“Kudos to the scientists at EASAC for sounding the alarm about the climate hypocrisy of labeling forest biomass as renewable energy and letting biomass-burning power plants off the hook for their climate pollution. The same false logic that’s led the EU to exempt biomass emissions under its Emission Trading Scheme, also underlies billions in direct subsidies to companies that burn trees for electricity on a massive scale in countries like the UK, which try to position themselves as climate leaders. These subsidies are paid out under programmes meant to support renewable energy, but just like fossil fuels, burning biomass increases carbon pollution.
“Given the climate emergency we’re in, it’s critical that the UK ends subsidies for biomass-burning power plants immediately and ensures they pay for their CO2 emissions, just like those that burn fossil fuels. Doing so would free up billions that could be invested immediately in real climate solutions like solar and wind.”
Biofuelwatch is one of the advocacy groups behind Cut Carbon Not Forests, a campaign that aims to persuade UK policymakers to end subsidies for companies that burn trees for electricity generation.