Reshape bioenergy policies to ensure sustainability

Project in a nutshell:

2C with Stichting BirdLife Europe (BLE), the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and Transport and Environment (T&E) perform advocacy and communication work on national level in the EU to ensure that bioenergy policies (including biofuels, biomass, biogas) effectively contribute to climate change mitigation while minimizing adverse impacts on the environment. The project aims at making: 1) events for raising public awareness on sustainability concerns related to bioenergy, 2) capacity and consensus building of national NGO coalitions and 3) promotion, translation and adoption of the joint NGO recommendations on bioenergy in the 2030 climate policy framework at national level.

Period: 2015 – 2016 (ongoing)

Support: David and Lucile Packard Foundation

Bioenergy can play a role in mitigating climate change by replacing fossil fuels, at the same time, it must be taken into account that bioenergy is a source of carbon emissions and can cause a number of other undesirable environmental, climate and social impacts, such as biodiversity loss. Bioenergy use can also cause an increase of fossil resources in other sectors and displacement of bio-based materials. According to the latest renewable energy progress report bioenergy constituted 57% of the EU’s renewable energy mix in 2014. It is therefore crucial to ensure that bioenergy delivers the climate and environmental benefits it was meant to deliver.

NGOs have been instrumental in raising awareness and building recognition that food based biofuels, pushed by the 10% target of renewables in transport has led to an increased pressure on agricultural land in Europe and has diverted prime agricultural land from food production to fuel production causing ‘indirect land use change’ (ILUC) often at the expense of forests, peatlands and other carbon-rich habitats and local communities. Scientific research has widely confirmed that when ILUC emissions are factored in, some biofuels can actually increase emissions compared to fossil fuels. Only after years of lengthy negotiations and far later than what the legislation itself actually foresaw, the EU officially decided to put a break on this unsustainable technology by capping the amount that can be counted towards the targets.

The landmark decision to put a break on land-based biofuels’ contribution to EU transports targets taken in April 1015, even if far from perfect, sends a strong political signal as regards the fate of first generation biofuels and should be seen as paving the way towards post 2020. It is also crucial that Member States implement it properly and use the opportunity given to go beyond the low ambitious level of the deal.

It is now of paramount importance to learn from past mistakes with biofuels and ILUC and to set the rest of EU’s bioenergy policy right in the 2030 framework. The low level of ambition for climate and energy targets in 2030, notably in the case of renewable energy, means that even more scrutiny on the kind of renewables that will be supported is needed.

While food based biofuels in the transport sector have been capped, food crops are still being used for biogas production. Energy crops grown on agricultural land risk creating similar kinds of ILUC emissions as food based biofuels but continue to be promoted without sufficient safeguards. For forests, growing bioenergy use drives more forest harvests to an extent that is likely to exceed low risk sustainable wood supply from EU’s forests while also diminishing the carbon stocks and sinks of forests.  A study commissioned by NGOs estimates that the use of wood energy as predicted by the Commission by 2030 creates annual emissions between 100 – 150 Mt CO2eq that currently go ignored, putting the credibility of EU’s GHG savings target at stake.

The use of more sustainable biomass feedstocks like agricultural residues and waste has been increasing slowly and the demand focuses on agricultural land and forests, already under increasing pressure.

The post-2020 policies for climate and energy will dictate the drivers of future bioenergy use and production, not only post-2020 but also pre-2020 by giving the direction of future investments and regulations. The European Commission is expected to suggest new legislation for renewable energy and a new policy on bioenergy sustainability late 2016. Time until then is crucial in shaping the views of member states and the Commission to ensure that the real concerns related to increasing bioenergy use are recognized and addressed and that mistakes of the ILUC process are not repeated.