The European Commission’s energy department has confirmed that there will be no green safeguards on the use of plant and woody biomass in the EU.
The decision is a victory for the energy department over their environment colleagues. When this debate raged in the Commission last year, the environment department had argued for binding legal standards to ensure that only the most environmentally-friendly biomass was used.
In a report published on 25 February, the Commission said that EU countries will be free to set up their own national schemes to promote biomass without binding standards on the origins of the plant or tree matter. However the energy department has conceded that the question of green safeguards, the “sustainability criteria”, should be reviewed in 2011.
“Biomass is one of the most important resources for meeting our renewable energy targets,” said Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for energy, in a statement.
Around 60% of all renewable energy in the EU comes from biomass – energy derived from wood or plant matter that is used in heating or power generation. But with European countries obliged to get one fifth of their energy supplies from renewable sources by 2020, the use of biomass is expected to increase.
The Commission decided that binding green safeguards on biomass would be too costly. Officials also deemed them unnecessary because most biomass burned in the EU comes from forest-industry leftovers (barks, stumps, branches, sawdust) from European forests. Forest cover in Europe is holding steady at 177 million hectares.
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But green campaigners have warned that not setting green safeguards on biomass could mean that the EU sucks in biomass from unsustainable sources, such as tropical forests, from outside the bloc.
To counter this concern the Commission has issued recommendations to member states on types of biomass to avoid, such as biomass derived from land converted from forests. Countries are also advised to ensure that different kinds of biomass make minimum greenhouse-gas savings compared to fossil fuels. For example the production and burning of wood pellets should save 35% of greenhouse-gas emissions compared to oil.
The Commission was obliged to produce today’s report on “solid biomass and biogas in electricity, heating and cooling” by a provision in the 2008 renewables directive.
A huge variety of waste wood and plants can be turned into biomass, from maize and wheat residues to forestry leftovers, municipal waste and sewage sludge.