Biomass – Campaigns challenging the use of woody biomass for energy lack key facts, according to IEA Bioenergy


A common tactic is to combine the use of woody biomass for energy with overexploitation of forests, or even permanent deforestation, and “burning of trees”. In fact, forest bioenergy is an integral part of the forest sector which responds to the demand for bioenergy by designing forest management approaches and industrial processes to produce fuels, heat and electricity as well as saw logs, paper and a multitude of other bio-based products.

These media campaigns also often ignore the many steps already taken towards sustainable forest management, especially in Europe and North America.

While it is certainly important to identify what is needed to ensure that biomass is produced and used responsibly, misrepresentations in recent sound clips risk completely discrediting biomass as a sustainable material and energy source. – an exploit which could have disastrous consequences. for global carbon neutrality ambitions.

Combustion is today the most common means of transforming woody biomass into energy, particularly in the form of heat and / or electricity. This may lead some people to believe that companies and organizations in the biomass sector are “cutting down forest stands and burning trees for energy”. These ideas are then taken up by certain environmental pressure groups and media campaigns. From there they manifest themselves in the mind of the ordinary reader and also among scientists who are not familiar with forest and bioenergy systems in the field.

Yet the reality is very different!

Forests are generally managed to provide multiple forest products, such as lumber, paper, bioenergy and also other biobased products. Wood used for bioenergy is not high quality lumber, but generally includes thinning, low quality wood, reclaimed wood, logging residue, processing residue or waste Of wood. For example, around 90% of the world’s renewable industrial heat consumption is currently biomass-based, mostly in industries that can use their own biomass waste and residues, such as sawmills and the pulp and paper industry. . By switching from fossil fuels to biomass, these industries can stop injecting fossil carbon into the atmosphere. Improvements in energy efficiency and changes in industrial processes further allow them to produce fuel, heat and electricity for use elsewhere, such as heating homes.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Center found that around 50 percent of the wood used for bioenergy in the EU is derived from secondary products, such as by-products of the forest industry and post-reclaimed wood. consumption, 17 percent of the tops of trees, branches and other residues, and 20 percent of stalk wood – which is mainly coppice wood, thinning wood from small stems and stems harvested from poor quality that cannot be used in sawmills or pulp and paper production.

Moreover, it is well recognized that any harvest of biomass – whether for bioenergy, building materials, paper or any other use – must be done within the limits of sustainability. This involves management and harvesting principles that provide guarantees against overexploitation and the maintenance of ecological sustainability as well as cultural and recreational values. This is why over the past 30 years, sustainable forest management programs such as those approved by FSC or PEFC have been developed and deployed. Hundreds of millions of hectares of forests around the world are currently FSC or PEFC certified. Many countries have adopted similar forest management principles in their national or regional forest laws. In addition, in the European context – at the center of these media campaigns – the overhaul of the Renewable Energy Directive imposes additional requirements to minimize the risk of using forest biomass from unsustainable practices.

It is extremely important to recognize that CO2 from bioenergy use is part of the short term carbon cycle. When a forest stand is harvested and some of the biomass is used for energy, the carbon that was previously absorbed from the atmosphere during stand growth is emitted into the atmosphere and new carbon is released. absorbed again when stand regrows. Thus, as long as the harvest does not exceed the carbon uptake in the forest, it does not increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

In contrast, the use of fossil fuels causes a linear flow of carbon from geological reserves to the atmosphere. Simply comparing tailpipe CO2 emissions – as is sometimes done – misses this fundamental difference between biogenic and fossil carbon. What matters is whether the increasing use of forest biomass for energy is part of a changing forest management paradigm that results in systematic decreases or increases in the amount of carbon stored in forests. If there is a decrease, it decreases the climatic benefits of forest bioenergy. If there is an increase, the climate benefit is enhanced.

The most important way to fight climate change is to transform energy and transportation systems as early as possible so that we can leave fossil carbon in the ground. Sustainable bioenergy is available now and is compatible with existing energy infrastructure, allowing immediate substitution of coal, natural gas or petroleum fuels. In addition, it can effectively remove CO2 from the atmosphere when combined with carbon capture and CO2 storage associated with the use of bioenergy. Bioenergy can therefore play an important role in supporting the transformation of the energy system to achieve carbon neutrality.

The use of woody biomass to meet growing energy demand as well as its carbon neutrality objectives should not be excluded as there may be risks of unsustainable practices. Rather, the focus should be on the practices, innovations and policy regulations necessary to ensure sustainable supply and efficient conversion to bioenergy and bioproducts.

For more information :

IEA Bioenergy


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