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Emissions impacts of burning wood for heat and power


Statement on the work of Forest Research (2018)

With more ambitious EU emissions and renewable energy targets being legislated for in 2021 and the re-opening of the Renewable Energy Directive 2018/2001 (RED II), the European Climate Foundation (ECF) sees an opportunity to highlight insights from an ECF commissioned report into large-scale bioenergy.

In 2018, the ECF asked Forest Research to provide a supplementary analysis and interpretation of a detailed modelling exercise it had undertaken as part of the European Commission’s Bioimpact Project [1] during preparations for the Renewable Energy Directive II.

At the request of the ECF, Forest Research used insights into EU bioenergy policy that it had gained from the Bioimpact Project to deliver a Statement of Risk as to the use of bioenergy to meet the EU’s renewable energy targets. The statement was as follows:

“Unless appropriate policy measures are taken to support sustainable bioenergy supply (in terms of impacts on GHG emissions), particularly in the case of forest bioenergy supply, a significant increase in bioenergy use in the EU is likely to lead to a net increase, rather than decrease, in GHG emissions being contributed from bioenergy sources.”
Report 'Carbon impacts of biomass consumed in the EU' by Forest Research
Geran De Klerk Qzgn45hsen0 Unsplash

While Forest Research clarified that the findings should not be interpreted to imply that the increased use of bioenergy in the EU must inevitably involve increased GHG emissions, the results strongly indicate that there are significant risks of increases in GHG emissions associated with greater bioenergy use, in particular forest bioenergy use, unless there are appropriate checks and balances on the supply and consumption of bioenergy sources with regard to associated GHG emissions.

The authors developed a list of 15 criteria that, together, could potentially help ensure bioenergy reduces GHG emissions. Concerningly, they found significant gaps between these criteria and those proposed by the Commission for Article 29 of the Renewable Energy Directive, which deals with “sustainability criteria”. Forest Research found that the (then) draft legislation made no specific provisions for 9 out of the 15 recommended criteria.

Since then, there has been evidence from a range of sources that the criteria in the final recast directive will be insufficient to ensure the supply of bioenergy to the EU is compatible with the Paris Agreement [2].  It is by no means certain that the 15 criteria proposed by Forest Research are a final step towards ensuring sustainable wood burning in the EU. Even tougher action may well be required.

It should also be noted that Forest Research’s ‘Consequential Lifecycle Analyses’ for the Bioimpact Report – reproduced for the 2018 report – showed that the scenario that made the least use of bioenergy, and greatest use of zero-emissions renewables such as wind and solar (Scenario D), delivered the best climate outcomes in the next 30 years. Furthermore, the scenario that relied heavily on imported wood (Scenario C1) – which reflects many current business models in the bioenergy sector – delivered one of the worst climate outcomes. The difference between the best practice and worst practice amounts to 148 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2030, which is significant [3]. The authors observed that:

“There is a strong positive relationship between these emissions and the level of bioenergy consumption in the scenarios, compared to the Reference Scenario, particularly forest bioenergy consumption (i.e. the higher the levels of forest bioenergy consumption in the scenario the higher the GHG emissions)"
Figure 5.1, page 29
Figure 5.1, page 29


To a significant extent, this negative impact on climate outcomes from forest bioenergy reflects the carbon payback period of different feedstocks, an issue which has also been highlighted by the European Academies Science Advisory Council [4]  in a 2019 paper titled ‘Serious mismatches continue between science and policy in forest bioenergy‘. [5]

“This analysis reinforces our concerns about many current business models for bioenergy use, especially those that rely heavily on imported wood pellets. The recast Renewable Energy Directive provides false confidence in bioenergy as a Paris-compatible solution. The review of the RED II, in light of higher climate ambition, gives the EU and its member states an opportunity to reconsider their position on forest bioenergy.”
Pete Harrison, Executive Director for EU Policy at the European Climate Foundation


[1] Robert Matthews, Nigel Mortimer, Jan Peter Lesschen, Tomi J Lindroos, Laura Sokka, Allison Morris, Paul Henshall, Charlotte Hatto, Onesmus Mwabonje, Jeremy Rix, Ewan Mackie and Marc Sayce (2015). “Carbon impact of biomass consumed in the EU: quantitative assessment”. Final project report, project: DG ENER/C1/427. Forest Research: Farnham.

[2] See, for example, Spatial Informatics Group (2019) or  Ceccherini, G., Duveiller, G., Grassi, G. et al. “Abrupt increase in harvested forest area over Europe after 2015”. Nature 583, 72–77 (2020).

[3] The 2030 emissions reductions associated with each scenario are displayed in Table 5.1 on page 30. It must be remembered that these reductions come from the economy-wide decarbonisation measures taken for each scenario.

[4] The perspective of the European Academies Science Advisory Council can be found at this link:

[5] Norton, M, Baldi, A, Buda, V, et al. Serious mismatches continue between science and policy in forest bioenergy. GCB Bioenergy. 2019; 11: 1256– 1263.

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