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Bioenergy: the Achilles Heel of the EU 2050 decarbonisation vision

18 December 2018

Bioenergy: the Achilles Heel of the EU 2050 decarbonisation vision

Timed to come out just before the climate conference in Katowice, Poland, the EU released its much-anticipated vision for decarbonising the EU by 2050, with an aim to be climate neutral by 2050. This move was widely supported, but falls short of NGO demands to be climate neutral by 2040, given its ability and responsibility to decarbonise faster.  

The EU’s new long-term climate vision is also notable for its attention to forests, stating that the EU cannot meet climate targets without harnessing the power of forests to store and sequester carbon dioxide (CO2).  

Whilst many NGOs are supportive of an increased role for forest restoration, suggestions of how to increase forests’ climate role vary considerably. Most of the EU’s scenarios show that, in 2050, existing forests will remove roughly half the amount of carbon that they do today. The most ambitious scenario shows carbon removals flatlining. However this does not have to be the case: Member State-funded studies show that given the actions, sequestration could almost double in that same time frame. 

All the EU scenarios rely extensively on wood for bioenergy, particularly electricity, with the highest scenarios foreseeing bioenergy supply more than doubling. This is the Achilles heel of the Vision: it suggests burning the very trees that should be used to help the EU enter a period of negative emissions after 2050; this will take away the urgency to explore other options in the meantime, rendering the EU energy system reliant on continued burning of biomass after 2050. 

The Commission states that bioenergy from burning whole trees will not increase from today’s levels. Given the sharp increase in bioenergy demand, this is unrealistic unless very strong sustainability criteria are included – something that the EU failed to deliver earlier this year. So far Renewable Energy Directive targets to increase renewable energy have increased forest harvesting. If this continues, forest carbon sinks would be reduced in the EU and beyond, with the further danger that such reductions wouldn’t form part of countries’ carbon accounting. 

Greater ambition is urgently needed for existing forests to build up a carbon sink, but the Vision must also consider the resilience of the forests that it is planting, to avoid the intensity of fires that have been seen around Europe (FW 238). The massive afforestation most scenarios foresee makes sense only if natural, species-rich forests are planted. To ensure that turning EU agricultural land into forests does not increase the conversion of forests to agriculture outside Europe, any large-scale EU restoration must be coupled with measures to decrease EU meat production and consumption. 

Categories: Climate, Negative emissions, Bioenergy

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