August 19, 2013 / 4:47 PM / 5 years ago

Woody biomass draft rules too weak-campaigners

* Biomass expected to account for around half of EU renewable energy

* Biofuel mistakes forced policy u-turn

* Utilities say they want harmonised system

By Barbara Lewis

BRUSSELS, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Draft proposals to regulate the use of biomass to generate energy, critics say, place the European Union on track to repeat the mistakes it made in its policy on biofuels, increasingly seen as doing more harm than good.

Various forms of woody matter, ranging from olive stones and old black-currant bushes to specially-manufactured pellets, are used to generate electricity and heat.

Utilities, such RWE, have embraced biomass to help substitute highly polluting coal, and biomass is expected to account for around half of the EU target to get 20 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2020.

A draft version of a Commission proposal seen by Reuters details sustainability criteria for biomass.

They include a minimum greenhouse gas savings of 60 percent compared with fossil fuel, avoiding producing raw material in areas of high biodiversity and harmonised accounting rules to prevent each member state setting different standards.

The proposals also link allowing government financial support to meeting the Commission’s proposed criteria.

The Commission, the EU executive, does not comment on unpublished documents.

Campaigners say the draft, expected to be published over the coming weeks, does not take sufficient account of mounting scientific evidence that biomass is not carbon-neutral and some forms are more environmentally-damaging than fossil fuels.

“Biofuels are really just the tip of the bioenergy iceberg. With current biomass policies unchanged, we are likely to meet our renewable energy target while increasing rather than decreasing emissions,” Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at BirdLife International, said.


On biofuels, the Commission has been forced into major policy shift.

In 2008, the European Union agreed to get 10 percent of transport fuel from renewable sources, but last year, the Commission announced plans to restrict the use of crop-based biofuels to 5 percent after scientific studies underlined the environmental damage caused by some of them.

The European Parliament is expected to hold a plenary vote on the new biofuel proposal in September. To become law, it would also need member state endorsement.

The main problem is indirect land use change, known as ILUC. The term refers to the disruption caused by using farmland to grow crops for energy rather than food, either within the European Union or elsewhere in the world.

It can mean farmers expand into rain forests and wetlands, for instance, which substantially adds to carbon emissions.

Environmental campaigners say the ILUC issue is relevant to biomass as well as to biofuel and the biomass proposal does not take sufficient account of it.

They also say the biomass sustainability criterion of a 60 percent emissions cut versus fossil fuel is meaningless because it ignores the carbon emitted while burning the woody biomass.

Biomass users declined to comment in detail on an unpublished document but said they would welcome harmonised standards.

A spokeswoman for RWE Innogy, which has a plant in Georgia, United States, to make biomass pellets said: “RWE considers a sustainable use of biomass as vital for all industries”.

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