Campaigns questioning the use of woody biomass for energy are missing key facts

Some concurrent media campaigns and publications question the use of woody biomass for renewable energy production, but several of them misrepresent on-the-ground forestry practice and bioenergy systems reports the International Energy Agency (IEA) Bioenergy.

Forest bioenergy is an integral part of the forest sector which responds to bioenergy demand by devising forest management approaches and industrial processes to produce fuels, heat and electricity along with sawlogs, paper and a multitude of other biobased products. Misleading media campaigns often ignore the many steps that have already been taken towards sustainable forest management, particularly in Europe and North America.

IEA Bioenergy states that while it is certainly important to identify what is needed to ensure that biomass is produced and used in a responsible way, the misrepresentations within recent soundbites run the risk of discrediting biomass as a sustainable material and energy source altogether – a feat that could have dire consequences for global carbon neutrality ambitions.

The Joint Research Centre of the European Commission found that about 50% of wood used for bioenergy in the EU is derived from secondary products, such as forest-based industry by-products and recovered post-consumer wood, 17% from treetops, branches and other residues, and 20% from stemwood – which is mostly coppice wood, small stem thinning wood and harvested stems of poor quality that cannot be used in sawmills or pulp and paper production.

IEA Bioenergy brings out that it is well-recognized that any harvesting of biomass – be it for bioenergy, construction material, paper, or other use – should occur within sustainability boundaries. This implies management and harvesting principles providing safeguards against overharvesting and maintaining ecological sustainability as well as cultural and recreational values. This is why in the past 30 years sustainable forest management schemes such as FSC or PEFC endorsed schemes have been developed and deployed. Hundreds of millions of hectares of forests globally are currently certified by FSC or PEFC.

Moreover, in the European context – the focus of these media campaigns – the recast of the Renewable Energy Directive imposes further requirements to minimise the risk of using forest biomass derived from unsustainable practice.

Sustainable bioenergy is available now, enabling immediate substitution

The most important climate change mitigation measure is to transform energy and transport systems as soon as possible so that we can leave fossil carbon in the ground. Sustainable bioenergy is available now, and is compatible with existing energy infrastructure, enabling immediate substitution of coal, natural gas or petroleum fuels. It can therefore play a significant role in supporting energy system transformation to achieve carbon neutrality.

All actors in the field already acknowledge the importance of sustainable forest management as a precondition for biomass harvests. “Sustainable forest management” includes, for example, protection of highly biodiverse areas, management that ensures regeneration after harvest, and maintenance of productive capacity – meaning that the managed forest continues to convert atmospheric CO2 into wood.

An increase in demand for bioenergy and other forest products – with clear market requirements for sustainable forestry practice – can actually incentivise reforestation and improved forest management leading to healthier forest systems and higher growth compared to the situation where forests are left unmanaged. Forest management generally also reduces the risk of carbon stock losses due to wildfire and diseases/insect outbreaks, issues that are increasingly prevalent under climate change.

The IEA Bioenergy states that the use of woody biomass to meet growing energy demand as well as its carbon neutrality goals should not be excluded because there may be risks of unsustainable practice. Rather, the focus should be on what practices, innovations, and policy regulations are required to ensure sustainable sourcing and efficient conversion to bioenergy and bioproducts.