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How sustainable biomass works – a response to the "Money to Burn" report

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

A recent report, covered by the Guardian, claims to investigate biomass supply chains from the Baltic region to the UK, among other countries. We’ve looked at some of the report’s key claims and corrected the misleading portrayal of the biomass industry and the sustainable forestry sector.

1) Emissions from biomass vs fossil fuels

First of all, the report repeats the claim made frequently by dedicated anti-biomass organisations that emissions from electricity generation from bioenergy are substantially (in the realm of 50%) higher than emissions for coal. This is simply not true. This claim is based solely on stack emissions, though even here the difference is much smaller. Biomass releases slightly more CO2e at the point of combustion than coal, but efficient plant, for example at Drax Power Station, reduce this to about 2%.

Crucially, this cherry-picking ignores the fundamental difference between fossil fuels, which introduce carbon into the atmosphere that was previously locked away for millennia, and biogenic carbon. Biogenic carbon is constantly exchanging between organic material and the atmosphere through organic growth and decay. Bioenergy makes use of this cycle. UK sustainability regulations ensure that the use of biomass for energy results in significant carbon savings compared to fossil fuels across the whole lifecycle, as do the updated EU regulations in RED II.

To take the UK (a leading example of sustainable biomass use), public support for biomass has allowed rapid decarbonisation of electricity grids. These subsidies have allowed us to reduce our dependence on coal, maintain flexibility on the grid and support thriving forests. The UK has reduced electricity emissions by 71.7% since 1990, with biomass playing a significant role in allowing coal to be phased out and supporting the development of intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar energy.

2) The “carbon debt” fallacy

Secondly, the report claims that harvesting wood creates a carbon debt. The following quote is taken from the report and is indicative of the misunderstanding of how sustainable forest management works: “If we count a period of, say, 40 years, in which the new trees have canceled the carbon debt, then yes that biomass can be seen as carbon neutral,” he says. "But if we consider a very short period of time, it is likely that the carbon debt will not be canceled.”

Yes, if one considers only an individual tree, or even only a specific stand of trees, then this may hold some weight. Forest management takes place at the landscape scale, however. Indeed, consideration of carbon sequestration and emissions in forests only makes sense if it is done at this landscape scale. Sustainable forest management is a matter of balancing growth and harvesting rates so that growth exceeds harvesting. That leads to year-on-year increases in the volume of growing trees, capturing more and more carbon each year. The report claims that small spruces will take decades to absorb the same amount as the felled tree, but this doesn’t address the big picture of growth across the forest.

A recent report from leading forestry consultancy Indufor concluded that Estonia’s forest area has increased to 52% of the total land in 2018 compared with 49% in 2010, and over the same period the total growing stock has increased by 52 million cubic metres with 40% of this growth in hardwood species.

3) Carbon accounting for biomass

The report refers to a “magic trick” of carbon accounting where emissions of biomass power are not counted at the power station, leading to the claim that the CO2 emissions have “effectively disappeared.” In fact, international carbon accounting standards, which include biomass power, do count the emissions of biomass power, they just do it under the AFOLU (i.e. forestry) sector rather than the energy sector. It reflects the fact that biogenic carbon is constantly being exchanged between the atmosphere and organic material. In a sustainably managed forest, ongoing growth balances out harvesting.

This is done for a number of reasons: a) to avoid emissions being counted twice, b) it’s simpler to track the real emissions accurately, and c) it allows for transporting biomass across borders, which happens a lot given the uneven spread of forest resources around the world (for example, the Southern USA’s forests cover an area three times the entire landmass of the UK).

This principle of carbon accounting (avoiding double counting) was re-examined and reaffirmed just last year by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and has been endorsed by the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC).

There’s more detailed information on the carbon accounting question here.

4) Biomass regulations – the importance of low-value wood

The report suggests that EU regulators were not following the science when they drew up the sustainability criteria for biomass and concentrates on the use of “whole trees” – a term that has no definition in the forestry industry. Leaving aside the carbon debt issue addressed above, it is important to understand that it is not the size of the tree which determines its value.

Bioenergy makes use of forest thinnings, which means small, diseased or misshapen trees that have low value for industries such as timber. They are removed to allow remaining trees more access to nutrients, meaning these trees will grow taller. This process maximises forest growth and also maximises carbon captured in structural timber or joinery wood. There is a clear, documented correlation between the productivity of forests and the volume of wood growing there. Reducing the ability to draw revenues from thinnings will reduce the ability of foresters to manage and invest in their forests. This white paper from September 2020 goes into more detail on the dangers of basing market interventions on arbitrary physical criteria.

The report claims that: “Since the revised Renewable Energy Directive and Estonian legislation does not ban the use of whole trees, Graanul Invest can harvest hectares of forests to turn into pellets in the name of sustainable management.” This simply does not make sense. It is the lowest quality wood that is used for bioenergy, as Graanul make clear here. The same is true for working forests all over the world – the raw material used for the production of wood pellets is always sourced from the bottom of the forest value chain.

Robert Matthews, a forestry expert for the UK government, was interviewed for the report, though all the information is not presented. His 15 recommendations from 2018 for sustainable biomass do allow for the use of “whole trees” as thinnings as part of sustainable forestry management. His recommendation (no. 12) on whole tree stems, runs as follows:

“Whole tree stems - Restrict supplies of forest bioenergy from whole tree stems to small/early thinnings with the aim of improving the quality of the remaining growing stock. Favour situations in which, otherwise, there would be limited incentives to thin and improve forest stands. Alternatively, favour supplies of wood biomass from small/early thinnings where a simply calculated but robust estimate of GHG emissions meets a defined minimum threshold.”

5) Certification

The report presents an overview of the various different certification regimes used for sustainable forest management, and heavily implies, through the presentation of a “flipside” for each one, that these schemes are inadequate. In many cases however, these schemes go beyond what is required by governments. The Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) is singled out for criticism for using data from 2016 and saying that Estonian forest land is homogenous, as well as for its links to industry. This is a misleading representation of the situation.

SBP uses Regional Risk Assessments (RRAs) to understand the local geography and forest economy. This is updated every five years to take account of changing scientific evidence, market conditions and socio-political questions. The next review for Estonia is in 2021, so the authors of the report will get their wish as SBP will update the certification scheme’s baseline for Estonia. Latvia is due the following year.

SBP also has multi-stakeholder governance arrangements in place. Both civil society and commercial interests are represented at every level of governance, fostering dialogue, decision-making and implementation of solutions to common goals.

6) Estonian forestry regulations

The report concentrates on evidence of forestry operations in Haanja Nature Park, on land owned by Graanul Invest Group. Evidence is given through satellite images of clear-felling in Natura 2000 protected areas and used to paint a picture of deforestation and unsustainable practices. Important details have been left out, however.

The report’s portrayal ignores the reality of government-approved forest management in Estonia. The Nature Conservation Act in Estonia divides nationally protected areas into different protection zones: strict nature reserve, conservation zone and limited management zone. In the first two, human intervention is either completely prohibited or only allowed for non-economic purposes. The main purpose of the limited management zone, however, is to be a buffer zone between strictly protected areas and conventionally managed forests. In these limited management zones, forestry practices are permitted, though only with the express permission of the Estonian Environment Agency, and economic activities cannot interfere with conservation goals.

Clear-felling has been misrepresented in the report as an undesirable practice. In fact, it is the most widely used final forestry harvest system in the world. It is a normal part of forestry operations worldwide and is often the best way to ensure that the objectives of sustainable forest management are met. For its report on biomass in 2018, the CCC included an annex on Sustainable Forest Management. The first item in the list of sustainable forestry techniques? Clear-felling.

We also spoke with the Estonian Ministry of Environment, and they provided the following additional information.

  • “The carbon stock has increased [in Estonian forests] between 1990-2020 (by 15%) including the stock in above-ground and below-ground biomass, deadwood and soil, although the total felling volume has increased.”

  • “…during [the] last 5 years, the overall protected forest area has widened [by] more than 50,000 ha and more than 75,000 ha of different (mostly forest) habitats have been re-zoned from the limited management zone to strictly protected zone.”

To conclude…

The principles of forestry management are tried and tested and ensure that wood is directed to the most efficient end-use. This maximises carbon savings and revenues for foresters and incentivises the careful management of forests that will only grow more important as we fight against the dangers of climate change.

The biomass industry is playing a crucial role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and supporting sustainable forest management. The regulations and carbon accounting principles for the use of biomass follow the science at every level, from national sustainability criteria, to the EU’s REDII, and the IPCC’s carbon accounting framework. These ensure that sustainable biomass provides tangible benefits for our climate and forests.

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