Last week, ministers from the 27 EU member states approved the updated Renewable Energy Directive (REDIII). Four weeks before, the European Parliament approved the final deal with a significant majority of 310.
For the bioenergy sector, the tighter rules that were agreed ended a two-year debate on the role of biomass in delivering the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality target. As such, political consensus in the EU has been reached: biomass will continue to play a central role in climate mitigation. The political consensus is based on the scientific one. The IPCC, IEA, UK Committee on Climate Change, and EU Joint Research Centre have been clear on the critical role of biomass in reaching net-zero. Frans Timmermans, the former Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, was right when he said: “without biomass, we’re not going to make it”.
Member states will now have to transpose the REDIII into national law, and in doing so, the focus moves from aspiration to delivery. A workable implementation is vital because bioenergy will be needed more in the future, not less. The EU currently uses 5 exajoules (EJ) of bioenergy, a figure that will need to grow by an average of 67% by 2050 according to the EU Commission’s REDIII Impact Assessment, not only for renewable power to balance the grid, but also for high temperature industrial processes and advanced biofuels for air and sea travel.
I am sure some will be surprised by that level of growth and will be questioning if there is enough bioenergy to fill this need. This is a reasonable question with a reasonable answer. There is far more sustainable bioenergy available to the EU than most people are aware of. If we assume the EU is able to use a share of global bioenergy that is equivalent to its share of global GDP – it would bring us to 17% – the figures on availability are very positive.
The IEA Net-Zero Roadmap concluded an average sustainable bioenergy potential of 140 EJ, which would mean the EU may reasonably be able to expect to use 23 EJ. The average sustainable bioenergy availability in the last IPCC report was estimated to be even higher at 177 EJ, meaning the EU could expect to be able to use 29 EJ. Finally, and a little closer to home, the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) estimates an average 125 EJ, meaning the EU could expect to use 21 EJ. It is worth noting that all of these estimates take account of ensuring food security and environmental constraints.
The European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change state in their most recent paper that bioenergy use may need to double by 2050 to 10 EJ. When we compare that to the figures from the IEA, IPCC, and PBL, a doubling of EU bioenergy demand is far below the available sustainable supply, with headroom of at least 70%. That is a considerable margin of safety. Is bioenergy a limited resource? Absolutely. Is it a scarce one? No.
The debate over the last decade, from REDII through to REDIII, has almost exclusively focused on limits that should be placed on bioenergy. It was pivotal to have consensus on the sustainability criteria, but it is a shame that it has taken so long. The regulatory uncertainty has held Europe back from investing in bioenergy, giving fossil fuels more room to run. Now the EU has consensus on a regulatory set up where sustainability risks are managed from multiple angles, it is time for a step change in the debate. We have world-leading sustainability criteria. We now need to focus on delivery. We need to focus on mobilising more sustainable bioenergy. Otherwise, based on the figures above, it is evident that the biggest risk to our climate targets is not mobilising too much bioenergy, its mobilising too little.
About the author
Director, Policy and Regulation Europe, Enviva
Andrew Georgiou is the Director of Policy and Regulation in Europe for Enviva, the world’s largest producer of industrial wood pellets. With almost 15 years of experience working in politics and public policy he leads Enviva’s engagement with policymakers across Europe. He sits on the Board of Bioenergy Europe and takes part in a number of working groups on a broad range of biomass policy issues affecting the EU and UK.