(Gerard Wynn is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed
are his own.)
By Gerard Wynn
LONDON Oct 12 The European Union's efforts to
establish the full carbon emissions from burning bio-energy is
an all but impossible task which illustrates the difficulty of
trying to cut humankind's environmental impact, which first has
to be measured.
The complexity of trying to link energy crops including corn
for ethanol on one side of the planet with carbon emissions on
the other is a tangled web of cause and effects which might
recall an equation in atmospheric physics.
But a fuller measure of carbon emissions is important, even
an inaccurate number beats ignoring the issue, especially given
the lessons from a related food versus fuel battle which sparked
a global backlash against liquid biofuels three years ago.
In a world of limited land and a growing population
decisions taken in Europe can cause farmers to wield chainsaws
in a tropical rainforest.
Trying to substitute 10 percent of fossil fuels with solid
and liquid bio-energy would consume 20 percent of the world's
current harvest of all plants and trees, illustrating the need
for limits on bio-energy.
That's because the calorific value of fossil fuel
consumption is double that of the world's entire harvest of
biomass for food, clothing, energy and wood products, show data
from European Environment Agency (EEA) experts.
The EU's executive Commission is deciding whether to account
for a range of ignored carbon emissions in a step which is
exciting passions in policy, the biofuel industry and academia.
Groups of U.S. and European experts recently urged the EU to
take a full look at indirect emissions effects which some
biofuel producers hotly dismiss as an academic joke.
Less European demand would likely dent a growing bio-energy
industry in south-east Asia and may jeopardise trade ties, with
Malaysia already disgruntled.
And there are implications for the EU's broader renewable
energy targets, achievement of which relies heavily on
bio-energy. The EU has a target to get a fifth of all energy
from renewable sources by 2020, and up to 10 percent of road
transport fuel from biofuels.
See this EEA chart: link.reuters.com/mug44s
The EU is rewarding consumption of bio-energy to try and
wean off fossil fuels and cut carbon emissions.
Food, energy crops, wastes and wood fuel can all be used to
generate bio-energy, including solid and liquid fuels for heat,
power and transport.
They incur direct, observed carbon emissions for example
from tractor fuel and fertilisers.
Qualification for support payments and numerical targets is
conditional on liquid biofuels cutting carbon emissions by at
least 35 percent compared with gasoline and diesel under the
EU's Renewable Energy Directive, rising to 60 percent from 2018.
The EU recommends the same savings for solid biomass such as
wood fuel compared with gas or coal.
But the rule only applies to direct emissions, not so-called
indirect land use change (ILUC), where some bio-energy displaces
grazing and food crops, driving carbon emissions from causing
land to be ploughed up elsewhere.
One study last year estimated that full ILUC accounting
would increase the net carbon emissions of bio-ethanol made from
U.S. corn by 40 percent, to nearly the same emissions as burning
gasoline, at 92 grams of CO2 per megajoule of energy compared
with 96 gCO2.
Link to the paper: link.reuters.com/hug44s
In another so far ignored effect, members of the scientific
committee of the EEA last month drew attention to a "basic
error", from ignoring what they called "foregone carbon
All plants extract CO2 from the air as they grow. If they
are then burned to produce energy, the CO2 is released back into
the air in what appears a zero net effect.
But when energy crops are planted they replace other plants,
such as a crop, grass, scrub or forest, which were also actively
In a full reckoning of effects that interrupted CO2
sequestration should count as emissions, said the EEA experts in
a suggestion which would increase the carbon emissions of all
bio-energy crops unless these were planted on barren land.
The EU has to make do with limited information.
Regarding indirect, ILUC effects, these are unobservable and
rely on agronomic-economic models still at an early stage.
A draft EU study meant to inform the bloc's decision
illustrates the uncertainty: it cited estimates of the extra
cropland needed worldwide to meet the EU's 2020 liquid biofuel
target at 8,209 to 52,372 square kilometres worldwide.
It described extra, ILUC emissions at ranging from 0.2
billion to 1.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent
cumulatively over 20 years, compared with global CO2 emissions
last year from burning fossil fuels of 33 billion tonnes.
See link: link.reuters.com/jug44s
European Commission leaks suggest the preferred policy
response, to be announced, will arbitrarily raise the bar for
all liquid biofuels, to CO2 savings of 50 percent from 35
percent compared with fossil fuels.
The ruling would likely be extended to solid biomass, such
as using wood fuel to generate heat and power.
While unscientific, the approach will work as a stand-in. It
will probably disqualify bio-ethanol made from corn - a highly
inefficient process - but allow more efficient sugar cane-based
But it should be coupled with certification of bio-energy
which adds least carbon emissions, such as waste including
sawmill residues, food waste and crop co-products, in a simple
refinement recognising and rewarding these more. That could be
tied with industry standards for wood fuel from sustainable
A full accounting method in the long-run will favour the
industry by driving efficiencies, advancing greener approaches,
and quelling hostile green groups and doubtful scientists.
Many forms of bio-energy would still qualify: planting
energy crops on degraded grasslands or exhausted plantations in
Brazil or Indonesia, for example, should barely register wider
impacts or forgo sequestration, while forest plantations should
also pass, assuming these didn't directly damage natural
forests, were managed sustainably, and didn't displace pulp and
wood fibre industries.
Removing subsidies for liquid biofuels should also help, as
recommended to G20 leaders by U.N. agencies, the World Bank and
others in June.
A smaller renewable energy industry could then press its
advantages, as a cheap, proven alternative to fossil fuels and a
useful stopgap to more expensive solutions, such as offshore
wind, solar power, hydrogen fuel cells and electric cars.