The way the EU Emission Trading (ETS) has been set up, means that replacement of coal or gas with biomass will lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions, writes Rauli Partanen, freelance author and analyst. And in combination with the renewable energy targets all EU member states have, this is exactly what our policies encourage us to do.
There has been a lively public and academic debate over the actual emissions of bioenergy – to what extent it is carbon-neutral and on what timescale. Supporters argue that even though burning of biomass will lead to carbon emissions, trees that have been cut will grow back, and will eventually sequester the released carbon back from the atmosphere. Opponents argue that even if this is true – and this also depends on the type of biomass involved – it might take decades – and all that time the released carbon dioxide is warming our atmosphere.
When coal is replaced with biomass, the total amount of emissions allowances in the ETS does not change, but on top of that, we also get the emissions from the biomass
Some academics have remarked that bioenergy can only reduce emissions if it is used to replace fossil fuels. Replacing wind, solar, hydro or nuclear energy with bioenergy will always lead to more emissions.
However, what most people fail to understand is that, in the EU, when coal or other fossil fuels in energy production are replaced with biomass, this will also lead to an increase in total emissions. Yes, you read that right: energy production with biomass increases total emissions in Europe – not just when it replaces renewables or nuclear, but also when it replaces coal or gas.
Our climate and energy policies are actually encouraging an increase of emissions. We have adopted a number of individual, seemingly beneficial policies that together create a quite catastrophic situation. Here is how it works.
First, all bioenergy is counted as zero-carbon inside the Emissions Trading System (ETS), which includes all large-scale energy production in Europe (heat and power). But burning of biomass always releases carbon dioxide, which always causes warming. Depending on the type of biomass and the observed timescale, the climate forcing can be smaller or larger. Burning sawdust causes a small impact while chopping up and burning roundwood has a larger impact. In some rare cases the impact might be negative – for example if we burn waste that would otherwise rot and cause methane release (methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2), but most of the time, it is positive.
Secondly, the ETS has a certain fixed amount of emission rights. If someone does not use their right to emit, it can be sold for someone else to use. So when coal is replaced with biomass, the total amount of emissions allowances in the ETS does not change, but on top of that, we also get the emissions from the biomass (which is counted as zero-carbon).
Until this policy framework is overhauled, the academic discussion on the carbon footprint of bioenergy is just that – academic
The ETS puts a ceiling on emissions from the energy sector, but it also puts a floor underneath them. Whether any member states takes a national political decision to phase out coal has no effect on the total amount of emissions rights on the ETS. Of course it is possible to agree to cut the total amount of emissions at the EU level, and we should, but that is a separate issue. It needs to be noted that cheap and plentiful emissions rights do make it somewhat more likely that we could agree on cutting total emissions.
Third, our current energy and climate policies actively encourage countries to replace coal and gas with biomass. European countries all have targets to increase the share of renewable energy in their energy mix. Over 60% (in 2014) of renewable energy in Europe is bioenergy or waste, which is needed to support the intermittent, non-dispatchable wind and solar. Many countries pay direct and indirect subsidies for bioenergy in order to meet their renewable energy goals.
And lastly, these subsidies encourage the use of biomass in the power and heating sector, which reduces its availability for other uses, outside the ETS. For example, biomass can be used to replace petroleum-based plastics and other materials, or refined into transportation fuels to replace oil, or used as a feedstock in the chemical industry. In all these applications, biomass would replace fossil fuels.
Until this policy framework is overhauled, the academic discussion on the carbon footprint of bioenergy is just that – academic. It has no relevance in the real world. The current European climate and energy policies are set in a way that ensure all bioenergy used in heat and power production (which fall under the ETS) adds to our total emissions. And so do the various goals to increase renewable energy shares in our energy production, as some of this renewable energy is bound to be biomass.
It is hard to imagine this was the intent of these policies, and it is clear that they need to be fixed as soon as possible.
Rauli Partanen (@Kaikenhuippu) is an independent writer and energy analyst who lives in Finland. In addition to his four energy-related books published in Finnish, his internationally published books include The World After Cheap Oil (2014) and Climate Gamble – Is Anti-Nuclear Activism Endangering our Future? (2015).