Sustainability of Biomass: Report

Sustainability issues with regard to biomass are of greatest concern to highly diverse ecosystems and are also relevant to impact on atmospheric carbon. Furthermore, deforestation and forest degradation issues are more related to poor governance and forest management rather than to biomass as such. These are among the conclusions of a Report presented by the European Commission on 25 February 2010 on sustainability requirements for the use of solid and gaseous biomass sources in electricity, heating and cooling.


The Renewable Energy Framework Directive of 23 April 2009 lays down a sustainability scheme for biofuels and bioliquids used in other sectors (electricity, heating and cooling). Member States may set their own national schemes for solid and gaseous biomass used in electricity, heating and cooling.  Whereas in the EU the legal framework regulating the use of biomass provides some guarantee of its sustainability, not all third countries have such measures in place.
In addition, there are parallel voluntary or mandatory sustainability schemes in the EU that vary a great deal and are not always compatible. Consequently, concerns have been raised over the need to ensure the sustainability of biomass and to avoid any barriers to the internal market.

The Report

This report outlines the main issues regarding sustainability of biomass and provides recommendations for sustainability criteria for solid and gaseous biomass to be used as guidance by Member States when they set their sustainability criteria for biomass. The aim is to encourage similar behaviour and avoid incompatible national schemes, which would create barriers to trade, hamper bioenergy growth and increase costs for Member States in their efforts to meet national renewable energy targets. Although the Commission was initially considering the option of proposing a legislative measure with binding specific sustainability criteria for biomass, the Report does not propose to adopt such a measure.

Sustainability Issues

The Report presents the main issues regarding biomass. Concerning biomass production, the Report states that sustainability issues mainly concern highly biodiverse ecosystems and carbon stocks from forest and agricultural production. At a global level, deforestation and forest degradation grows mainly because of weak governance and forest management, especially in developing countries. International initiatives only partially address this situation. Voluntary certification schemes have been put in place to control sustainable forest management. In the EU and North America, deforestation has been curtailed and sustainability risk is fairly low. However, increase in domestic demand of biomass entails alertness as to the impacts of this demand.
Land use change and forest accounting is pinpointed in the Report as another challenge to be addressed. Land use change resulting in deforestation or degradation can lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions and loss of effectiveness and productivity. Accounting land-use change and forestry is crucial for the sustainable production of biomass. Emissions from land use change and forestry is addressed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, but accounting methods need to be changed according to the document.
To calculate emissions from greenhouse gases attributable to biomass, the most convincing methodology is the lifecycle assessment, according to the Report. For reasons of consistency, as this method is already used under the Renewables Directive to calculate emissions from biofuels and bioliquids, the Report recommends it also be used for bio-energy. This methodology shows that greenhouse gas savings from biomass are around 80% compared to fossil fuels.
Finally, energy conversion efficiency is a main feature of sustainability, according to the Report as there is important potential for reducing energy consumption through increasing efficiency. This issue is addressed in other legislative measure related to eco-design of products and efficiency of buildings.

Recommendations on Sustainability Criteria

The Report states that as sustainability risks relating to domestic biomass are low, there is no need for the Commission to propose binding criteria for biomass at EU level. However, as Member States may adopt national sustainability schemes for biomass, to avoid incompatibilities between national schemes the Report lays down recommendations for Member States to be used as guidance.
The recommendations are as follows: Greenhouse gas performance criterion should not apply to wastes. In the Renewable Energy Directive, wastes and residues only have to meet the greenhouse gas performance criteria instead of all the listed sustainability criteria (relating to sustainable forest management, biodiversity protection etc.). The Report considers however that it is very difficult to calculate these greenhouse gas savings for waste. This criterion should therefore only apply to products listed in Annex II to the report, for which greenhouse gas savings have already been calculated.
The Report recommends the extension of the methodology to calculate greenhouse gas emissions from renewable energy sources to biomass. Annex I to the Report lays down a methodology for calculating greenhouse gas emissions from primary solid and gaseous biomass fuels on the same lines than the methodology laid down in the Directive. Annex II to the Report lays down typical and default greenhouse gas performance values to be used for the calculation.
Support schemes for electricity, heating and cooling installations should favour installations that achieve high energy conversion efficiencies, such as cogeneration plants. Finally, the Report recommends the guidelines be applied only to larger energy producers of 1 MW thermal or 1MW electrical capacity or above to avoid burdening small-scale producers. In order to establish valid statistics the Member States are advised to monitor the origin of biomass used in both large-scale installations and by small-scale users (households). This data should be communicated to the Commission.

No Binding Criteria – Yet

The Commission Report does not propose to adopt a legislative proposal with binding sustainability criteria specific to biomass for the moment. The impact assessment that accompanies the Report deems that binding criteria would generate important costs for economic operators and therefore the adoption of binding criteria is not foreseen for the moment. The Report will be reviewed in December 2011. This review will assess whether national schemes have sufficiently addressed sustainability issues related to biomass from and outside the EU and whether the schemes have led to barriers in trade and increased costs. The Commission will also consider whether binding criteria for biomass at EU level are needed. As regards LULUCF and REDD, the Commission will address the situation in 2011 if provisions and action at international is not deemed sufficient.