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Is burning wood really a form of renewable energy?

Over the last few decades, we have been presented with various possibilities for producing cleaner forms of energy. Recently, the climate change crisis has forced national governments, international institutions and organisations to develop programmes to reduce our pollution of the environment.

The main question that has arisen is: How can we respond to the increasing demand for energy while nurturing a cleaner environment?

Government entities have to find a middle ground between economics and caring for nature and our own health, since heat and power generation, industrial facilities for manufacturing, mining and oil refineries are all major sources of air pollution and represent potential health hazards.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that air pollution contributes to around 7 million premature deaths every year:

  • 4.2 million deaths occur as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution;
  • and 3.8 million deaths occur as a result of exposure to smoke from dirty stoves and fuels at home.

EU Renewable Energy Directive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

At the EU level, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) of 2009 (2009/28/EC) supported the production and use of energy from renewable sources. Its goal was for at least 20% of the EU’s total energy to be renewable by 2020, which was to be achieved through national targets for each of the Member States.

Can these targets be achieved without increasing the use of forest bioenergy? According to a study conducted for the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy, it is possible to design scenarios which limit or fully constrain any increase in bioenergy use. Other studies have investigated what happens when restrictions are placed on the amount of bioenergy consumed by the models.

Jacopo GiuntoliDr Jacopo Giuntoli, sustainability scientist and bioeconomy expert, said the following: “The climate and biodiversity crises are interconnected and should be tackled together. The latest IPBES-IPCC report is clear on this aspect, in line with the messages in the Joint Research Centre (JRC) report. In my latest paper, I argue that while there are alternatives to bioenergy as a mitigation strategy, there is no alternative to healthy forest ecosystems. Therefore, achieving the climate targets at the expense of biodiversity and ecosystem health should not be considered a sustainable way forward.”Read the full interview

As a part of the Clean Energy for all Europeans package (CEP), the European Commission proposed an update to RED in 2016. RED II targets the period between 2021 and 2030. The EU institutions have agreed upon a final form of RED II that aims to maintain the EU’s position as a global leader in renewables. RED II establishes a new binding renewable energy target for the EU for 2030 of at least 32%, with a clause for a possible upward revision by 2023, while also aspiring to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2030.

The European Commission aspires to increase the percentage of renewable energy usage, and that implies not only continuing to burn wood as a form of renewable energy, but an increase in this practice. This would greatly affect ecosystems and the quality of our air and would sharply accelerate climate change.

A study of Norwegian forests discovered that “increasing the use of wood from a boreal forest to replace coal in power stations will create a carbon debt that will only be repaid after almost two centuries of regrowth.”

Biomass cogeneration plant

© Tobias Arhelger / Adobe stock

Michael NortonDr Michael Norton, Environment Programme Director at the European Academies Science Advisory Council and Professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology, Shinshu University and Tohoku University, said the following: “The initial carbon neutrality concept involved using forestry residue that was left over from harvesting wood for paper or timber or previous uses. But once you start needing to buy five million tonnes, you soon run out of genuine residue and you have to start cutting down trees, and that’s the point at which you incur this large carbon debt, because that carbon in the tree goes straight into the atmosphere in such an inefficient manner. So pellet manufacturers certainly use residue from sawmills and other ‘waste’ wood, but this probably makes up no more than 10-20% of most of the pellet manufacturers’ input. The bulk is whole trees entering the pellet mills. The argument is that they are generally not good enough to be used for timber and may often therefore be classed as ‘residue’ – ‘residue’ being a very flexible definition, which includes tree thinning or clear cutting of a stand of forest, which just goes to bioenergy as the most financially rewarding route in that location.” – Read the full interview

Can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using forest biomass as a source of renewable energy?

Plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using forest biomass as a source of renewable energy were problematic from the start. According to a European Environment Agency (EEA) scientific opinion, biomass generally emits more CO2 per unit of final energy than fossil fuels: “Per unit of energy, the CO2 emissions would typically even be higher than those of a fossil-fuel-burning power station because biomass contains less energy per unit of carbon than petroleum products or natural gas and because biomass is usually burned with a lower efficiency than fossil fuels. Although the growth of bioenergy crops absorbs carbon, using the land to grow bioenergy crops sacrifices the use of the land to absorb and sequester carbon in the forest.”

According to Tim McPhie, European Commission’s Spokesperson Service: “Biomass is a versatile energy source that can help replace fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal in the heating, electricity and transport sectors. That being said, it must be used and produced in a sustainable way.”Read the full interview

In the current EU context, according to RED, biomass energy is a form of renewable energy. If the demand for renewable energy continues to grow, the use of wood fuel will rise as well. This will have an impact on our climate and forests.

Alessandro AgostiniDr Alessandro Agostini, researcher at the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA), said the following: “We are running out of time to act, and all the carbon which is not in the forest (or in wood products) is in the atmosphere. When forested areas are under human management, they normally lose some biodiversity and become more vulnerable. So, it is probably time to review the classification of renewable energy sources and remove forest bioenergy.”Read the full interview


Related content

A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Prof Michael Norton on burning wood as renewable energy
A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Tim McPhie on burning wood as renewable energy
A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Dr Jacopo Giuntoli on burning wood as renewable energy
A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Dr Alessandro Agostini on burning wood as renewable energy

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