Why Europe needs bioenergy to reach net zero
Sourced from sustainably-managed forests, bioenergy use must increase to deliver the European Green Deal
The era of bold climate ambition has finally arrived with more than 100 countries pledged to reach net-zero emissions in the next 30 years. The goal is holding global temperature rise to 1.5°C this century, thus avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. But to make these commitments a reality, much work remains and the challenge is immense.
The EU is at the forefront of this effort with the European Green Deal, the bloc’s signature initiative to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. As EU leaders close in on a sweeping set of policy proposals and investment decisions, sustainable bioenergy remains an indispensable mitigation technology in making the EU's low-carbon energy transition a success.
An Anchor for the EU’s Low Carbon Transition
Bioenergy is the EU’s largest source of renewable energy, accounting for almost 60% of total consumption. It has underpinned decarbonisation of the energy sector, directly displacing coal while providing on-demand, renewable power contributing to a massive expansion of intermittent wind and solar capacity. It is also one of the only scalable and readily available alternatives to fossil fuels for combined heat and power plants, and plays an important role in supplying commercial as well as domestic heat for over 50 million European households.
Because of its versatility, sustainable biomass is increasingly sought as a renewable feedstock in the industrial sector to replace fossil-based chemicals and plastics. Furthermore, bioenergy combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is now a proven technology that can deliver negative emissions and is in the process of being scaled up. Projects are already underway in the US, Sweden, Denmark and the UK.
While it is necessary to introduce strict sustainability criteria for bioenergy, in order to achieve climate ambitions for 2030 and beyond, EU leaders must avoid any policy approach that would unnecessarily limit availability, disrupt supply chains and deter investment in a climate solution that has enabled considerable progress, and still holds immense potential.
Follow the Models
There are multiple decarbonisation pathways to net-zero. Leading scientific bodies, governments and policy consultants have modelled various routes, crunching a vast quantity of data. Significantly, all mainstream analyses indicate the necessity of increasing bioenergy to meet climate goals.
The impact assessment published by the European Commission last autumn modeled multiple scenarios for achieving the EU’s 2030 and 2050 emissions targets. Each shows the need for more bioenergy, projecting its use to increase this decade, and double by 2050.
Similarly, a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 found biomass to be essential in three out of four climate mitigation scenarios, with increases of primary energy from biomass ranging from 49% to 418% by 2050. Much of this increase is connected with using BECCS – an essential negative emissions technology. However, the report also notes, “bioenergy use is substantial in 1.5°C pathways with or without BECCS due to its multiple roles in decarbonising energy use.”
Finally, a 2020 McKinsey study exploring the optimum pathway to reduce EU emissions 55% by 2030 found that increasing the use of biomass is “critical” to reaching net-zero, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors.
Effective Policy Rooted in Constructive Dialogue
For the EU to realise its ambitious Green Deal objectives, climate policies must embrace sustainable bioenergy to meet the long-term goals we are all striving towards.
Unfortunately, the debate around woody biomass, in particular, has become so polarised that constructive dialogue is difficult. This creates barriers to parsing the issues and forging consensus on the way forward. Calls for an open, science-based discussion to “detoxify” this debate have hence been increasing, including from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, IEA Bioenergy and Norway’s SINTEF research organisation. Each have made the point that bioenergy is a necessary climate solution when produced sustainably and used efficiently.
“The approach to woody biomass has to be balanced between ensuring a sufficient amount of renewable energy while fully respecting biodiversity and the need for carbon sinks in the form of forests,” remarked Ditte Juul-Jørgensen, Director of the European Commission's energy department, during a March 23th Clean Energy Summit. “It’s clear that because bioenergy covers such a significant share today, we are going to need it in the system, otherwise we will not make it to climate neutrality.”
Sustainable bioenergy has already delivered tangible climate benefits for Europe and will be needed more than ever to fulfill the immense promise of the Green Deal. By continuing to back sound, science-based policies, EU leaders will ensure sustainable bioenergy plays its indispensable role in making their vision a reality.