The International Energy Agency (IEA) today published a new energy scenario. It models for the first time how the world can achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5ºC. A group of environmental and social NGOs campaigning to stop the EU burning forests for energy says this is a step forward; but they also criticise the IEA for relying heavily on bioenergy to meet climate goals and for failing to halt the use of land for energy production. Bioenergy is a false climate solution that adds emissions to the atmosphere, exacerbates biodiversity loss and negatively impacts food security.
The Net Zero Emissions scenario foresees bioenergy use increasing by 60% by 2050 to 104 exajoules, up from 65 exajoules in 2020. The total land area devoted to bioenergy production would increase by 25% to 410 million hectares in 2050, an area the size of India and Pakistan combined. By 2050, the world population is also expected to have increased by two billion.
Erle C. Ellis, professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, and the author of “Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction”, said: "The IEA’s Net Zero Emissions scenario and other proposals that advocate for continuing the use of land for bioenergy production, even with a move away from conventional biofuels like corn ethanol and palm biodiesel, will inevitably compete with the food needs of a global population of more than 9 billion and the need to conserve and restore land to reverse the current biodiversity crisis. Such proposals are not only unrealistic and unfair to vulnerable populations, they divert responsibility away from the continued abuse of fossil fuels by the developed nations that caused this climate crisis in the first place."
Dr. Mary S. Booth, Director of US-based bioenergy research group Partnership for Policy Integrity, said: "The IEA’s Net Zero Emissions is very much a “have your cake and eat it too” scenario. We need forests and land to capture carbon, not to release it into the atmosphere and accelerate global warming. The IEA needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink the bioenergy part of this Net Zero scenario."
Hannah Mowat, campaigns coordinator with Fern, a Brussels-based NGO campaigning to protect forests and people, said: "Burning forests for energy is the latest in a parade of false climate solutions. Sadly, the IEA has bought into it by proposing wholly unrealistic levels of bioenergy, which will damage forests the world over and actually worsen climate change. Instead of burning trees for energy, we should focus on cutting fossil fuel use, maximising energy efficiency and increasing renewables such as solar, wind, heat pumps and geothermal."
Harriet Bradley, Senior Agriculture & Land Use Policy Officer, BirdLife Europe: “We have to stop this addiction to burning things. Bioenergy is just an extension of the old fossil fuel model, and by some analyses even worse for the climate. Instead of peddling self-defeating false solutions, governments and industry must urgently set aside land for nature."
“Traditional” use of solid biomass for cooking is currently 40% of the total use of bioenergy globally. The model assumes an abrupt halt in this use of biomass, falling to zero in 2030, thus freeing up biomass for other uses. The phasing out of firewood for cooking at such speed will likely have significant social implications for the poorest people in the world, especially in Africa. It is unrealistic to assume that the most vulnerable people will have access to biogas in such a short period of time.
The modeling assumes there are large amounts of “advanced” biomass feedstocks that do not require additional land to produce, like agricultural residues, forest residues and sawdust and other wood processing wastes. However, removing agricultural residues from soils significantly depletes soil carbon, resulting in a net addition of carbon to the atmosphere. Moreover, sawmill and paper mill residues are already used for energy or are sold to make other products such as particleboard or mulch. There are not large amounts of additional mill residues available for energy generation. It is therefore likely that this additional demand for bioenergy would lead to additional wood harvests, despite the IEA’s models projecting the contrary.
Despite IEA’s claims, this increase in the use of bioenergy is in stark contrast to the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. The IPCC depicts a pathway that avoids temperature overshoot and doesn’t rely on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This scenario envisions a decrease in bioenergy relative to 2010, not a 60 per cent increase. This is because this scenario prioritises maximising carbon storage by forests, not burning them for energy.
The European Union plans to increase bioenergy use by a whopping 80 per cent by 2050 .
The bloc is currently revising the 2030 targets for renewable energy, including bioenergy. So far almost 100,000 citizens have told Vice-President Timmermans to change the law in order to ‘protect forests, not burn them for energy.’
Notes to the Editor:
 European Commission’s Impact Assessment of 2030 climate ambition: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52020SC0176