EU biomass targets put pressure on global land resources

There is a now a widespread awareness of the tensions created by mandated EU biofuels targets for global land use and food markets. The requirement that 10% of EU transport fuel should come from renewable sources by 2020 is set out in the Renewable Energy Directive 2009/28/EC adopted by the European Council in April 2009.

The other important target in this Directive is that 20% of the EU’s gross final consumption of energy should come from renewable sources by 2020. Indeed, from a land use and food markets perspective this target could have a potentially greater impact.

While much of this renewable energy in the electricity sector will come from wind, overall by 2020 biomass will remain the most important source of renewable energy in the EU (accounting for 57% of the total, according to an analysis of Member State National Renewable Energy Action Plans undertaken by The Netherland Energy Research Centre and reported in AEBIOM’s 2011 Annual Statistical Report). This is actually somewhat less than the Commission’s original projections in the impact assessment of the Directive that biomass would account for two-thirds of the renewable energy supply in 2020.

Forest and forest based industries are the main contributors to biomass supply, and this should still be the case in 2020 (more than 53% of biomass supply, according to the AEBIOM report). However, the biggest increase is projected to come from EU agriculture (energy crops, biofuel crops and biogas), with smaller amounts from waste. DG Agriculture and Rural development notes on its website that “Agriculture seems thus to be key for a genuine, large expansion of biomass supply.”

The consequences of biomass imports

However, a number of Member States expect to meet their targets by relying on imports of biomass. Analysis of the data in the NREAPs and trade statistics reveals that the quantity of wood required to satisfy the 2020 targets is likely to be too large to be met by increased production within the EU. Thus, Member States will have to rely on importing wood products from elsewhere. A recent study by the Ecologic Institute for the European Parliament Impact of EU bioenergy policy on developing countries considers the implications of increased demand for woody biomass imports from developing countries.

Many of the issues discussed in the report are familiar from the debate on the impact of increased EU biofuel demand on developing countries. They include the impact on access of rural communities to land and water; the extent to which expansion of biomass cultivation could undermine food security in developing countries; impacts on the access to indigenous renewable sources for energy consumption by local populations; and potential environmental impacts including deforestation and spread of monoculture plantations.

Sustainability certification for biomass imports

The Ecologic Institute makes some recommendations to address these concerns. First, it notes that the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive contains sustainability standards for liquid biofuels for transport but there are no binding sustainability requirements for the use of solid and gaseous biomass sources in electricity, heating and cooling. The Commission addressed the need for such sustainability criteria in a 2010 Communication but decided initially to leave it to Member States to introduce criteria based on those in the Directive.

The Commission undertook to report by 31 December 2011 on whether national schemes have sufficiently and appropriately addressed the sustainability related to the use of biomass from inside and outside the EU, whether these schemes have led to barriers to trade and barriers to the development of the bio-energy sector. It would then consider if additional measures such as common sustainability criteria at EU level would be appropriate.

It would also report on how international climate change negotiations and other policy developments including LULUCF accounting and REDD relate to the sustainable production of biomass, whether used for energy, food, feed or fibre. This report is awaited, and will presumably take into account the decisions reached at the Durban UNFCCC conference in December last year.

One might ask why stop at sustainability criteria for biofuels and biomass? Are the social and environmental impacts of sugar cane production to export white sugar to the EU any different to those caused by the export of ethanol? Does the expansion of palm oil plantations to export vegetable oils or soybean production for animal feed have different social and environmental impacts to using these crops to produce biodiesel?

One difference is that it is the mandate built into the Renewable Energy Directive which gives the sustainability criteria for biofuels some teeth. Any type of biofuel can continue to be imported into the EU, but it is only those which comply with the Directive’s sustainability criteria that are eligible to be counted against a Member State’s obligations under the Directive.

As the Ecologic Institute report acknowledges, sustainability criteria have inherent weaknesses. At present they do not account for indirect land use change. Higher prices for wood driving increased logging elsewhere in the world cannot be addressed by the sustainability certification schemes envisaged in the Directive. Nor do sustainability criteria address the social and economic impacts on local communities such as food security, local energy security and land access. The report recommends EU assistance to help developing countries build good governance mechanisms to address these concerns.

Reducing the EU’s ecological footprint

At the heart of these debates about the impact of EU imports from developing countries – whether imports of biofuels or their feedstocks, biomass imports or even imports of food and feed – is a critique of the mainstream view that trade is a mutually beneficial activity. The Ecologic Institute report recommends – as do many development and health NGOs in the case of food policy – that the EU should try to limit its imports (of course, not only from developing countries).

To address these impacts in developing countries a meaningful reduction of the EU’s ecological footprint – which is still more than double in size, compared to the productive area available in Europe – needs to be achieved. This deficit is created by importing goods (including but not only energy wood) and services from beyond its borders. In order to alleviate it, substantial efforts towards greater energy and resource efficiency and savings are needed in order to alleviate the pressure on natural resources and ecosystems outside Europe.

The ecological footprint concept is intended to answer the question whether Europeans are using more than their fair share of the world’s resources. It is an indicator that measures the amount of biologically productive land and sea that is needed to provide all resources humanity uses for final consumption. In 2003 the EU ecological footprint was 2.26 billion global hectares (gha), or 4.7 gha per person. In contrast, Europe’s total supply of productive area in the same year was 1.06 billion gha, or 2.2 gha per person. According to the European Environment Agency, the ecological footprint for pan-Europe has been increasing almost constantly since 1961, while Europe’s biocapacity has decreased. This results in an ever larger deficit, with negative consequences for the environment within and outside Europe.

Critiquing the role of trade

Improvements in resource efficiency are both necessary and desirable where global resources are limited (regardless of whether the EU is an importer or exporter of the product concerned). One might add that changes towards more sustainable consumption behaviour are equally important.

Trade is one way in which greater resource efficiency can be encouraged. Historically, it has also been an important facilitator of economic growth which is the main way in which access to global resources is redistributed in favour of poorer countries and poorer people.

However, trade does not always have these positive impacts, particularly for the poor, in situations where property rights are skewed, uncertain or non-existent (for example, with respect to land or the environment). Whether trade should be limited in those circumstances rather than addressing these deficiencies directly is a continuing source of controversy in both food and energy policy.

Photograph of Brazilian eucalyptus forest copyright Chris Lang and used by permission under a Creative Commons Licence.

This post is written by Alan Matthews

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2 Replies to “EU biomass targets put pressure on global land resources”

  1. How can the EC Communication have said that it is up to Member States to incorporate sustainability criteria, when the EU also mandated that liquid biofuel sustainability criteria have to be the same across the EU?

    For liquid biofuel, legislation and standards are harmonised under Article 95 (internal market) of the EU Treaty which means standards for importation of liquid biofuel must be uniform all across the EU. This means that due to the requirements of free trade, individual countries are not permitted to set any higher social and environmental standards on the importation of liquid biofuel from third countries.

    This comes that under Article 17.8 of EU Directive 2009/28/EC – so that “Member States may not for those purposes exclude biofuels/bioliquids on other sustainability grounds than the sustainability criteria laid down in the Directive”. The source of this is Article 2.4 of ‘Communication from the Commission on the practical implementation of the EU biofuels and bioliquids sustainability scheme and on counting rules for biofuels’ – from the Official Journal of the European Union 19.6.2010

    It seems that the same does not apply to solid biomass, as Member States are invited to set their own standards. However the same communication you cited above includes the qualification that ” Member
    States must ensure that national sustainability schemes do not constitute a means of arbitrary
    discrimination or a disguised restriction on trade.”

    It seems to be tricky legally to comply with free trade provisions and also set comprehensive standards… altogether, it looks like the EU has constricted itself in terms of what it can do and free trade provisions may limit the possibility of truly sustainable biomass.

  2. @Helena

    Thank you for your comment and for highlighting the rules as they apply to sustainability criteria for biofuels. You are right to point out that, currently, there is a different treatment for sustainability criteria for biomass, in that the EU has not yet decided to impose mandatory criteria at EU level but does allow Member States to set national criteria, with the proviso that they should be as closely aligned to the criteria in the RED as possible to avoid introducing trade discrimination.

    Note that the mandatory biofuel standards do not apply to importation per se from third countries. They are only relevant for a specified number of purposes set out in the 2010 Communication you reference, for example, when counting towards their targets under the RED.

    It is not clear to me that your conclusion that “free trade provisions may limit the possibility of truly sustainable biomass” is valid. Most woody biomass used in the EU is currently produced in the EU and sustainability concerns are low. But as the demand for imports rises, concerns will grow. My guess would be that the Commission is hoping to learn from Member State experiences (I wonder how many MS to date have implemented national sustainability criteria for biomass?) and it has promised to keep the issue of mandatory EU standards under review. I would interpret the Commission’s position as ‘make haste slowly’ rather than holding the view that free trade rules tie its hands and make it impossible to introduce sustainability criteria.

    Thanks again for the reaction.

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