What drives demand?

Demand for biomass such as wood, crops and waste for energy is growing due to the EU’s policies

While demand for food, wood and most natural resources is expected to rise due to growing demand and population increases in general, demand from the energy sector is driven by energy and climate policies. Therefore scrutiny is justified to ensure that energy and climate policy goals are met, without extensive additional damage to ecosystems and their services.

The EU aims to have 20% of all energy consumption (and 10% of energy consumption from the transport sector) coming from renewable energy sources by 2020, outlined in the Renewable Energy Directive. These targets have been translated into binding, national targets for Members States. By 2030, 27% of EU’s energy consumption should be from renewables but it’s still unclear how the task will be divided between Member States.

In addition, the EU has other policies, for example to reduce the carbon intensity of transport fuels (Fuel Quality Directive) or to cut industrial greenhouse gas emissions (EU Emission Trading Scheme), that also drive increased use of bioenergy – in many cases based on flawed assumptions.

For most bioenergy i.e. solid biomass and biogas used in electricity and heating, the EU has no sustainability requirements and therefore no measures to limit environmental damage linked to, for example, additional forest harvest or grassland use.

EU policies also falsely assume all bioenergy use creates no GHG emissions, even though science has clearly stated this not to be a valid assumption

For biofuels in the transport sector, EU policies have included some sustainability requirements. While safeguards were put in place to reduce direct land use change due to biofuels (e.g. conversion of grasslands), indirect land use change and GHG emission arising from it were not originally regulated. Indirect land use change is particularly linked to “first generation biofuels” made out of food and feed crops.

Numerous scientific studies, on emissions from deforestation related to biofuel production, on the impacts on local communities in the global South and access to land, as well as many stories from on the ground published after the adoption of the EU’s biofuels policies quickly changed the public perception on the benefits of biofuels. Evidence came out that in certain cases emissions from biofuels could even be worse than the regular fossil fuels Europe was trying to substitute. This, together with links to food price changes, brought the European Commission to propose new legislation in 2012, which aims to limit the contribution of land based biofuels towards the renewable energy targets and report correctly on the effects of the indirect land use changes. The new legislation also gives some first pointers to the sustainability of so-called second generation biofuels (often made of waste and residues).

The European Commission has also said it will propose a Renewable Energy Package for Europe from 2020 to 2030 which will include a bioenergy sustainability policy for all forms of bioenergy. A proposal is expected in 2016 – 2017 but it still remains to be seen if it will be fit to address all the challenges linked to bioenergy use.