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Biomass can emit more carbon per unit of energy than most fossil fuels, Chatham House paper reveals

In February 2017, Chatham House published Woody Biomass for Power and Heat: Impacts on the Global Climate, by Duncan Brack. Broadly picked up by media in the UK and elsewhere, the report argues that policies promoting wood for renewable energy production are based on the flawed assumption that wood is a carbon-neutral energy source.

EU policies do not account for the emissions from bioenergy in the energy sector, because it is assumed that these emissions are accounted for at the point of harvest in the land use sector. However, the report finds that part of the emissions may never be accounted for, such as when EU countries use biomass imported from the United States. Fern highlighted similar concerns last year in light of insufficient EU rules on accounting for emissions from land use.

But the Chatham House report also underlines a bigger problem with burning wood for energy, namely that its emissions may be higher than the fossil fuels they replace. Biomass emits more carbon per unit of energy than most fossil fuels. Whether these emissions can be recuperated by future growth of biomass is not only uncertain, but often unlikely.

The report, in line with earlier recommendations by environmental groups, proposes that policies clearly distinguish between different types of feedstock and provide support only to those which reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, taking into account changes in forest carbon stocks. In practice, this means that only certain waste products and residues can be supported, because they are not likely to drive additional timber harvests.

The Commission proposed a sustainability policy on bioenergy in November 2016, and now EU Member States and the European Parliament are working on their positions. Considering the climate impacts of wood energy, Fern suggests that they will have a close look at this important report by Chatham House.