EEA calls into question ‘carbon neutral’ biomass

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has said that the production of bioenergy is not always carbon neutral and must follow EU resource efficiency principles, but experts say more research is needed.

A report published today by the EEA, ‘EU bioenergy from a resource efficiency perspective’, refutes the notion that bioenergy is ‘carbon neutral’, as often considered.

Even though carbon dioxide released in combustion can be compensated by the CO2 absorbed during plant growth, indirect land use change can negate any greenhouse gas savings.

According to the report, this is due to the displacement of crop production onto previously unused land, which can lead to the conversion of forests and savannah to agriculture. Such land use change harms biodiversity and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

However, NNFCC chief executive Dr Jeremy Tomkinson argued that while agricultural biomass production could never be completely carbon neutral, the effects of indirect land use are often misunderstood.

Talking to edie, he claimed that global food stocks could be managed in a way that would ensure the conversion of land for farming was not always necessary.

“I am unconvinced that we have got the correct methodology for regulating indirect land use change. It is an extremely complicated science and more time has got to be put into research to understand what the actual effects are,” he said.

In addition, Tomkinson pointed to a report released last month from the World Bank, which stated that almost two-thirds of global food price changes were due to fossil fuels.

In 2010 bioenergy was the source of approximately 7.5 % of energy used in the EU. This is foreseen to rise to around 10 % by 2020, or approximately half of the projected renewable energy output, according to EU Member States’ National Renewable Energy Plans.

EEA executive director Hans Bruyninckx said: “Bioenergy is an important component of our renewable energy mix, helping to ensure a stable energy supply.

“But this study highlights the fact that forest biomass and productive land are limited resources, and part of Europe’s ‘natural capital’.

The report also indicates that the current energy crop mix is not favourable to the environment and it recommends the use of perennial crops, which are not harvested annually.

The EEA claims this would enhance, rather than harm, ‘ecosystem services’ provided by farmland – such as flood prevention and water filtration.

Tomkinson said he broadly agreed with the report and that it was essential that more research was needed to increase the efficiency of biomass production.

“We should be looking to maximise the potential that we can get for land and that most definitely means for bioenergy looking at other perennial crops such as short-rotation coppice,” he said.

Conor McGlone

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