Campaigners take legal action over EU biomass review

LONDON (Reuters) - Environmental campaigners ClientEarth and BirdLife International are taking legal action against the European Commission over its failure to publish a review of greenhouse gas emissions from biomass.

The groups have filed an application to the General Court in Luxembourg for the Commission to give access to the study, which could confirm doubts that biomass used for heat and power is free of emissions, ClientEarth told Reuters on Thursday.

The Commission’s review was initially expected to be finalized by September last year.

Marlene Holzner, spokeswoman for the EU energy commissioner, said the Commission’s Joint Research Centre was still working on the document on the carbon accounting of biomass.

“The Commission is closely monitoring the scientific debate (..) around the accounting of carbon benefits of biomass. This topic is being analyzed in the context of the ongoing Commission analysis on biomass sustainability, to be finalized in the first half of this year,” she added.

Environmentalists have been urging the European Union for some time to agree sustainability criteria to ensure only the right kind of biomass is used in energy generation.

ClientEarth said it has repeatedly asked for access to the review but each time has met with delays from the Commission.

“We believe there is no legitimate reason for the Commission to withhold the document, so we would expect that the Commission will not be able to justify refusal and thus decide to provide access to the document,” said Giuseppe Nastasi, biomass legal expert at ClientEarth.

“We believe this document will be crucial for an informed public debate on the sustainability of bioenergy, in particular as policy makers discuss the reform of the much-contested biofuel and biomass policies,” he added.

To meet a 2020 goal to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent compared with 1990 levels and increase the share of renewable energy in the mix to 20 percent, also by the end of the decade, EU nations are increasingly depending on biomass which is made from wood pellets, forest residues and other kinds of waste,

European demand for wood pellets to produce electricity is estimated to rise more than three-fold by 2020 as governments offer subsidies for greener energy sources.

So far, biomass has been assumed to be carbon-neutral on the grounds that any emissions generated when it is burnt for heat or power are offset instantly by the regrowth of more biomass.

However, many experts now doubt this.

A report by the Institute for European Environment Policy last year said EU carbon reduction efforts would fall short of target because they rely on the false assumption that biomass used for heat and power is emission-free.

The institute said there could be a time lag, potentially lasting for decades, between harvesting a tree and growing enough new forestry biomass to compensate.

Rulings made by the General Court can, within two months, be subject to an appeal limited to the points of law to the European Court of Justice.

Reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford