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A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Dr Alessandro Agostini on burning wood as renewable energy

Biomass cogeneration plant

Interview with Dr Alessandro Agostini, researcher at the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA)

According to a Joint Research Centre (JRC) publication, the global production of wood pellets reached 29 million tonnes in 2016, of which more than 50% was produced in the EU. Why is burning forest biomass considered a form of renewable energy? Why did it end up in the Renewable Energy Directive?

Forest biomass is actually renewable. Just as fossil fuels are renewable. The difference is in time perspective. Forest biomass takes decades, if not centuries, to regrow, while fossil fuels take millions of years to form.

So, if the energy demand is low and the time perspective is long, bioenergy can be considered renewable. If we were still in the Middle Ages, or earlier in human history, with a low energy demand and no alternative energy sources, I would consider it renewable.

However, we are currently experiencing a climate/biodiversity emergency. All four of the planetary boundaries that have been crossed as a result of human activity (land use, biodiversity, eutrophication and climate change) are strongly affected by the production of bioenergy, and these are also the boundaries which govern the habitability of the planet. It is not a joke: the future of our children is at stake. We are running out of time to act, and all the carbon which is not in forests (or in wood products) is in the atmosphere. When forested areas are brought under human management, they normally lose some biodiversity and become more vulnerable. So, it is time to update the classification of renewable energy sources and remove forest bioenergy. Residual and waste streams of wood may still be valorised for their energy content, but should still follow a cascading approach.

On why forest bioenergy ended up being included in the directive, I think there is a certain level of inertia in the education system. They are still teaching my children that biomass combustion is good, because the tree takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, while carbon from fossil fuel combustion is completely different. This idea is still in the mind of many scientists, especially those working on biomass mobilisation and processing, and this leads to delays in changing the societal perception of renewable energy. This is then what ends up shaping policymakers’ priorities, together with lobbying pressures. If societal priorities and stakeholder interests are aligned, policymakers have an easy life. Scientists, particularly those at the JRC, drew attention to the issue of forest sustainability and indirect land-use change long ago, but policymakers have different, shorter-term perspectives. They need to launch catchy initiatives and they often do that by ‘shooting first and aiming later’.

You are originally from Italy. Is burning forest biomass a common form of renewable energy in your country?

Biomass use is rather common in Italy. In Italy’s most recent national energy and climate plan, a small reduction in the total use of biomass is expected by 2030. Multiple factors are contributing to the reduction, rather than increase, in biomass consumption. Firstly, air pollution. In the Po valley, one of the most industrialised and productive areas of Europe, air quality is an issue. Local government and municipalities are struggling to comply with the Air Quality Directive, even to the point of banning wood-fired pizzerias!

Furthermore, biomass is expensive. Among the largely deployed renewable energy sources (hydro, wind, photovoltaic and biomass), biomass is the most expensive, which also means the incentives are costly.

Another factor is efficiency. Modern power stations are more efficient. This means that less feedstock is needed per megajoule produced, and therefore results in an apparent lower consumption of biomass, though the level of service could be the same.

There is also competition between the ways forest biomass can be used: for energy or for materials. Italy is a manufacturing country with a lively furniture sector. One bioperversity is that fresh woodchips are combusted because economic bioenergy stakeholders have greater buying power thanks to financial incentives compared to panel board manufacturers, who use second-life wood for furniture, as fresh woodchips are too expensive.

Another issue is wood traceability. About 60% of combusted wood comes from unknown sources. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to assess and certify its sustainability.

According to Eurostat, between 2005 and 2016, the consumption of renewable energy in the EU increased by 79%. Nonetheless, the EU still had to consider alternative forms of energy that could be cleaner and more sustainable. When and why did the idea of burning forest biomass start to circulate among EU policymakers?

The idea of forest biomass combustion did not start at a precise moment in time. Energy from forest biomass was always there. It is the most ancient form of energy. The idea of generating bioenergy from forest biomass probably started with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. In the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) methodology for greenhouse gas accounting, carbon emissions are properly reported in the LULUCF (Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry) sector. However, there were issues around the accounting concerning imports, foregone sequestration and other technical issues. In practice, however, forest biomass was considered carbon-neutral.

The issues also stemmed from the limitations of techno-economic system modelling. The model used to assess greenhouse gas emission scenarios were, and most of the time still are, decoupled from land use models. In short, according to the models used to model the energy and transport systems (PRIMES, for example, was used for a long time) biomass combustion was carbon-neutral, so, even if all EU and non-EU forests were cut down and burnt, the models would not consider any additional carbon to have been released into the atmosphere. And, of course, they only modelled carbon emissions. None of the other resulting environmental and social impacts were taken into consideration.

Several JRC researchers, along with scientists from the European Environment Agency, have stated that burning wood has a larger impact on the environment than burning fossil fuels. With this in mind, why do you think that the EU institutions promoted the idea of using wood as a form of renewable energy in 2009, even though they were most likely aware of the potential dangers?

Conceptually, there may be several reasons other than climate change and environmental sustainability that need to be taken into account in the policymaking process. There is also the security of the energy supply, rural development, job opportunities and other factors. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development plays a significant role in EU decisions. It spends half of the EU budget.

However, if there had been a clear and univocal message from the scientific community, policymakers would probably have been more careful about incentivising bioenergy. However, there were, and still are, groups of scientists that tend to advocate bioenergy. In my experience, they are worse than economic stakeholders and multinational companies. They are normally researchers working on biomass processing, for whom bioenergy is sustainable by definition, or forest experts who believe forests must be managed and cut back. They feel this way because they have worked in these fields for their whole lives and see their future as being connected to bioenergy. One of the worst pro-bioenergy groups is IEA (International Energy Agency) Bioenergy, an intergovernmental organisation. From just one look at its website, even nowadays, its position is clear. It has developed a roadmap which predicts the triplication of modern bioenergy use by 2050. It publishes papers which mislead policymakers. It even asked an independent institution, Chatham House, to withdraw a report.

I can assure you its claims are all wrong. All its work is based on two flawed assumptions: that biomass replaces coal, and that bioenergy incentives increase both the carbon in forests and the production of bioenergy. There is no evidence for either of these claims.

We have targets for renewables written into our law. If biomass is not used, other renewables are used, so biomass in the EU does replace other renewables. In general, what is replaced and in what amount depends on the specific market conditions. Whatever is chosen by the modeller is a value choice. Fellow researchers have also disproven their claim that additional bioenergy demands lead to additional forest productivity.

Moreover, they adopt a limited methodological approach. They consider only greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainability is much more than just greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change also includes other climate drivers, and environmental sustainability includes many areas of environmental concern: air pollution, eutrophication, water scarcity, biodiversity, etc. But sustainability is much more than environmental sustainability: it also includes social and economic sustainability. From a consistency check of the 100 most cited papers on the bioenergy life cycle assessment, we found that most scientists fail to grasp the concept of sustainability and provide policy recommendations even though their work only models a single aspect of sustainability.

In theory, the wood used in energy production should be inferior wood which has to be harvested. Where does all the wood from pellet plants come from?

As mentioned, 60% of the wood used in Italy for bioenergy is from unknown sources. Many large plants close to harbours import pellets or woodchips. Often the market is illegal or controlled by questionable companies.

The idea of using ‘inferior wood’ is fine. The issue is that there is not much residual wood available. In general, it is all already used. Nobody is piling up waste wood somewhere. The only spare wood available is harvest residue and wood from salvage logging, and a few other limited wood streams. But you cannot triple the amount of bioenergy with residual wood. Moreover, if we incentivise bioenergy now, forest owners will not rush to plant more trees. They will cut and burn what they have. They can use the practices and logistics they are currently using. The bioenergy sector is strongly related to the pulp and paper industry. My feeling is that the pulp and paper industry has somehow moved towards South America, where there is a lot of cheap wood and labour. This leaves the US with pine plantations that it cannot sell, so it is now targeting the EU.

In British Columbia (Canada), the Forest Defenders Alliance has conducted an investigation proving that a lot of the wood that ends up in EU pellet power stations comes from Canadian primary forests. Are EU power stations also using trees from Canadian primary forests?

It is difficult to say if the wood is from primary forests, as it is also difficult to define primary forests. But I would say it is likely. The EU is importing wood for bioenergy from the US and Canada, where primary forests are being logged for bioenergy, so even if the wood imported is not from primary forests, it is the EU’s additional demand which leads to the harvesting of primary forests. It is the same with ‘certified’ palm oil. Even if the palm oil entering the EU is not from recently converted areas, but from existing plantations, it is the additional EU demand which is leading to palm plantation expansions. Old plantations are used for biodiesel and new plantations for food, but it is still the additional EU demand which spurs deforestation.

Is the European wood used in EU pellet power stations coming from areas where logging is allowed?

Officially, the wood should be legal. However, a significant part of the wood sold worldwide is traded illegally. As it is illegal and not traced, there are no official statistics, but some numbers are provided by NGOs. The new legislation proposed with the European Green Deal should limit the use of illegal wood.

What alternative means of energy production would you deem climate-friendly?

The most climate-friendly source of energy is energy efficiency. The less we consume, the better. In general, photovoltaic and wind energy are cheaper, consume less land and water and do not emit the same amount of air pollutants and eutrophying substances.

Why is burning forest biomass still seen as a form of renewable energy by the EU, when research has proven that it is damaging to the environment?

I think this is now a clear message from EU, with the new European Green Deal directives. But, as mentioned above, policymaking is complex and greenhouse gas emissions are not the only consideration. It also takes into account rural development, security of energy supply, diversification of energy sources, job opportunities and social cohesion. There are also issues with the credibility of the EU policy as a whole. For example, even though the EU has acknowledged the detrimental effects of first-generation biofuels (e.g. global food and feed market volatility, land grabbing and deforestation), they represent a guaranteed investment. The EU cannot tell economic stakeholders to invest in something and then forbid it.

Policymakers are also under pressure from stakeholders, which is reasonable and can be controlled. But when the lobbying comes from ‘scientists’ and international intergovernmental organisations doing everything they can to cast doubt on the scientific evidence, policymakers are in a sense free to base their decisions on other grounds, dismissing the scientific evidence as ‘still under debate’.

But what is driving me crazy is that IEA Bioenergy is just doing what it thinks is its mission. The co-initiator of the IEA Bioenergy programme once wrote the following to me: ‘However, the IEA is an OECD body set up under specific auspices (to focus on managing the energy supply to OECD countries) and its Bioenergy Programme is even more focused in its terms of reference (to promote the sound development of bioenergy).Therefore, IEA Bioenergy is acting within the terms of reference when it opposes what it regards as “alternative facts” presented by adversaries.’ This is not exactly the IEA Bioenergy mission.

And the rest of IEA Bioenergy’s staff are no better. They are all biomass experts, but their expertise lies in gasification, pyrolysis, biomass trade and so on. None of them have expertise in sustainability assessment. For them, sustainability is measured in gCO2 in comparison to coal. For 10 years they have been presenting the same flawed ideas in support of bioenergy. They started in 2011 by blocking our report on forest bioenergy carbon accounting for more than a year (then it was ‘accidentally’ leaked and the press requested access.) They directly asked the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy (DG ENER) to review a JRC report, and they managed to keep it hostage for a very long time. Then they attacked the Chatham House report. They organise lobbying activities. They present themselves as ‘the science’. And this confuses policymakers. They are told the issue is not settled among scientists, so then they have an excuse to ignore the scientific evidence.

What can EU citizens do to remove burning forest biomass as a form of renewable energy from the Renewable Energy Directive?

In democracies, you should decide with your vote what your government does. The EU also provides many ways for citizens to engage in the policymaking process. But I think citizens have plenty of good reasons to protest and join non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in their fights (or at least some NGOs). One of the reasons is that citizens end up paying twice for bioenergy, both through their taxes, which provide the financial incentives, and then by purchasing power or fuel, which is more expensive than other renewables. Then they have to breathe in the air pollutants and lose recreational spaces and biodiversity.

Air pollution still represents a health hazard in several EU countries. With this in mind, would it not be wiser to plant trees instead of cutting them down?

As a matter of fact, poor air quality causes the premature deaths of 400 000 Europeans per year. Of these, 40 000 are due to biomass combustion. Also, planting trees has to be done properly. A mix of endemic species mimicking natural forests is recommended as it is more resilient and enhances ecosystem services.

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