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Bioenergy

We envision an energy system that relies on wind and solar and that moves away from burning, including burning biological material like wood and agricultural products (bioenergy). Bioenergy, in its various forms (biofuels, biomass, biogas and biomethane) is sometimes perceived as an alternative to fossil fuel, but when produced at scale from primary material has important negative consequences for land.

Key challenges

  • Bioenergy (from all sources) already makes up more than half of the EU’s renewable energy mix but comes with very serious risks. In 2021, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre found that using any type of forest wood for bioenergy, apart from twigs and tiny branches, increased emissions and damaged biodiversity for at least two decades. It also noted that over a third of the EU’s wood used for energy comes from “primary wood”, that is, whole trees and treetops. In 2021 over 500 scientists from around the world wrote to the Commission calling for a halt to subsidies for woody biomass; this was followed by another appeal in summer 2022.
  • With the disruption to global food markets following Russia’s war on Ukraine, public attention has also turned to the impact that subsidies for energy crops are having on global food prices. According to Searchinger et al, Commission modelling for the implementation of the Fit for 55 package estimates that Europe will import more wood – growing from about 3 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2015 to 13 million in 2050 – and devote 22 million hectares to energy crops by 2050, roughly equal to one fifth of Europe’s cropland. This could have hugely damaging impacts on global food security and exacerbate the crisis.
  • Since 2009, the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) has allowed Member States to subsidise energy from burning biomass. The aim was to cut emissions, but it didn’t take into account the many disadvantages of bioenergy in addition to its failure in many cases to actually reduce emissions. Despite this, EU Member States spend billions of euros subsidising bioenergy harvesting – and encouraging it as a renewable energy.

Why biomass is a false solution:

  • There is alarming evidence of a 69% increase in biomass loss from European forests for the period of 2016–2018 relative to 2011–2015.
  • Most industrial-scale bioenergy has comparable or higher emissions than fossil energy when measured across the short window of time in which we must act on climate change. According to the IPCC, burning wood from forests results in 18% more CO2 as well as more methane and nitrous oxide being released into the atmosphere per KWh of energy generated even than coal.
  • A 2021 supplementary analysis by Forest Research for ECF found very serious risks in increasing bioenergy use in the EU – and that “backing away” from bioenergy provided the greatest GHG reductions.
  • Most forms of bioenergy from forests are harmful to biodiversity and soil carbon storage, according to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

Mission

The ECF looks at bioenergy not just from a climate perspective, but also through a broader land use and sustainability lens. Some sectors that are hard to decarbonise might need to rely on bioenergy in an economy compatible with the Paris Agreement; for those, a small amount of bioenergy needs to be secured. Yet all the other sectors that have alternatives for decarbonization, such as electrification through wind and solar, have to move away from burning. The bioenergy that is still needed to provide the last fraction of decarbonisation must be targeted specifically for these sectors, used in the most efficient way, and produced sustainably and without depleting our carbon sinks or putting pressure on other planetary boundaries.

How we work

Through our activities, we aim to protect and ensure that land keeps its primary function of producing food, supporting livelihoods, preserving biodiversity, and storing carbon. We support a range of organisations that deliver expertise on bioenergy and forests at the international, EU and national levels.

“I do not view bioenergy as being climate friendly & call on the EU to stop encouraging & incentivizing its use. Climate action and nature protection must go hand in hand. Scientists are clear that there are huge climate and biodiversity risks from bioenergy (especially the burning of trees).”
Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation

Contacts

Thomas Legge

Director

Sara Lickel

Senior Associate