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Academics and IEA slam ‘misleading’ Chatham House bioenergy report

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More than 125 academics have joined the International Energy Agency Bioenergy Technology Collaboration Programme (IEA Bioenergy) slamming Chatham House’s recent report on bioenergy, calling it ‘misleading.

The group of academics from across the world and the IEA state that the report “does not present an objective overview of the current state of scientific understanding with respect to the climate effects of bioenergy”.

They are urging the Chatham House author to “reconsider flawed policy recommendations”.

The Chatham House report, entitled Woody biomass for power and heat impacts on the global climate’, was published late February. It maintained that using biomass to generate low-carbon electricity is a flawed policy that is speeding up and not slowing down climate warming, according to a new study from Chatham House.

The study maintains that wood is not carbon neutral and emissions from pellets are higher than coal.

Subsidies for biomass should be immediately reviewed, the author of the Chatham House report, Duncan Brack, stated.

Energy debate

According to the IEA, with the upcoming EU-level discussion on the future of European energy, publications analysing the contribution of bioenergy have proliferated, including the recent Chatham House report.

IEA Bioenergy points out that this report does not present an objective overview of the current state of scientific understanding with respect to the climate effects of bioenergy.

The report was analysed by members of the IEA Bioenergy Technology Collaboration Programme with globally recognised expertise in biomass production, carbon accounting and sustainability of biomass.

The members determined that the major conclusions and policy-specific recommendations are based on unsubstantiated claims and flawed arguments.
 
The IEA Bioenergy experts identified three major areas of concern which they analysed below.

 

  • Climate effects and carbon neutrality of bioenergy. The report gives an inaccurate interpretation of the impact of harvesting on forest carbon stock, proposes a misguided focus on short-term carbon balances and overstates the climate change mitigation value of unharvested forests. It also assumes that forests would remain unharvested and continue to grow if no biomass was used for bioenergy, which is unrealistic.  

 

  • Bioenergy and forest products markets and systems. The report considers roundwood to be the main woody bioenergy feedstock, but the on-ground reality is that in the EU, by-products and residues from silviculture are the most common type of feedstock. Furthermore, bioenergy can prompt forest owners to plant more trees and invest in sustainable forest management practices. The report largely overlooks the role bioenergy can play in supporting the urgently needed energy system transition.

 

  • Sustainability criteria. The report fails to acknowledge that forest bioenergy is not a single entity but an integral part of the forest management, forestry and energy-industry system that also produces material products. It is therefore unreasonable to expect that the maintenance of the carbon stock in forests would be guaranteed by sustainability criteria applied to the bioenergy category only.

 

In the report’s general conclusion, it is proposed that “sustainability criteria should be used to restrict support to mill residues that are produced from legal and sustainable sources”.

IEA Bioenergy, together with 125 scientists, strongly disagree with this recommendation, and urge Chatham House to reconsider their recommendations. “We invite Chatham House to engage in a more thoughtful and substantive discussion with technical experts like IEA Bioenergy and review the recommendations. The development of bioenergy and the bioeconomy as a whole are critical in order to realise a low carbon economy,” said Kees Kwant, chairman of IEA Bioenergy.
 
According to the IEA, sustainable production of biomass is possible and can be enlarged in an integrated way with food, and other human demands, as was presented recently by FAO, IRENA and IEA Bioenergy. Long-term low carbon scenarios have been developed and are described in the IEA World Energy Outlook 2016. Biomass as a sustainable resource for products and energy is crucial to enable a low carbon economy to be established in a sustainable way, the IEA said.

Aebiom secretary general Jean-Marc Jossart said: “Woody bioenergy is a very diverse sector, key for our future energy transition and as such, deserves fact-based science rather than sensationalistic headlines.

“The IEA bioenergy’s response is an important signal sent by the academic community to EU institutions currently debating future EU sustainability rules. Debunking the growing number of myths arising in the debate is essential for avoiding a return to fossil fuels.”

This story was written by Liz Gyekye, editor of Bioenergy Insight.