Wood-based bioenergy production in Europe causing indiscriminate felling of forests

Rampant logging of whole trees is taking place in protected forests to source wood products for bioenergy plants

By DTE Staff
Last Updated: Monday 28 November 2016
There’s no law to make it obligatory for European bioenergy plants to prove that their wood products are sustainably sourced. Credit: David J/ Flicker
There’s no law to make it obligatory for European bioenergy plants to prove that their wood products are sustainably sourced. Credit: David J/ Flicker There’s no law to make it obligatory for European bioenergy plants to prove that their wood products are sustainably sourced. Credit: David J/ Flicker

Up to 65 per cent of Europe’s renewable output comes from bioenergy rather than wind and solar power. But according to an investigation by Birdlife—a collaborative entity on nature conservation—the protected forests across Europe are being felled indiscriminately to meet the renewable energy targets. The continent’s carbon sink is reported to decline by about 100 million tonnes between 2020 and 2030, mainly due to logging for bioenergy.

The investigation has revealed how rampant logging of whole trees is taking place in conservation zones to source wood products for bioenergy plants. The logging continues to meet the growing need for bioenergy fuel although it is supposed to be harvested from residue such as forest waste. Currently, there’s no law to make it obligatory for European bioenergy plants to prove that their wood products have been sustainably sourced.

According to the State of Europe’s Forests 2015 report, the forests in the continent are one of the main sources of roundwood in the world and the demand for woodfuel is increasing at a high rate in European countries. In Slovakia, for example, the drive to reach the EU’s renewable energy targets has seen a 72 per cent increase in the use of wood for bioenergy since 2007.

A study by Think Forests–Center for International Forestry Research observed that the demand for forest biomass would increase by 73 per cent by 2020 to meet the EU’s climate and energy targets. This has triggered fears over possible shortage of forest biomass. Consequently, it could lead to fierce competition over woody biomass and loss of forest biodiversity.

Destruction of carbon sink

Large-scale demand from power plants and lack of enough forest residues drive the felling of forests for bioenergy. However, logging of trees releases stored carbon into the atmosphere and affects the carbon sink. While the power to absorb harmful emissions wanes, the efforts to compensate for the felled trees take 50 years or more.

A wood plant in Vyborg (north-west Russia), for instance, produces 800,000 tonnes of wood pellets each year from felled trees in forests around Leningrad and Pskov Oblasts. Its wood products meet demand in Denmark, Italy, Finland and Sweden. “The European commission should phase out all land-based biofuels by 2030 and devote greater efforts to promoting sustainable renewables such as solar, wind, geothermal and tidal,” said Jori Sihvonen, the biofuels officer at Transport and Environment who co-authored the report by Birdlife.

How sustainable is forest management in the EU?

There are entities and individuals who deny these excesses. According to the Confederation of European Forest Owners (CEPF), the forests in the continent are managed “with the highest sustainability standards in the world” and it needs to be recognised and promoted. The CEPF is of the view that fixing criteria for solid biomass would hamper management of forests.

Currently, it is the EU member states that determine the national Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) policy. Although they have adopted the FOREST EUROPE voluntary criteria and indicators, those guidelines lack target levels or any legality. There are huge disparities in how forests are managed across Europe owing to different understandings and traditions of SFM among member states and lack of coherence between forest and land-use policies.

Forest cover in Europe

Europe’s forests cover an area of 215 million ha, 33 per cent of total land area. Other wooded lands cover about 36 million ha. While Northern Europe is the most forested region in the continent (53 per cent), South-East Europe is the least forested region (23 per cent). Around 80 per cent of the total forest area in Europe is available for wood supply.

Making bioenergy sustainable

As the surge in demand for biomass puts pressure on European forests, there’s a need to discuss how sustainably they are managed. Meanwhile, the European Commission will propose a new bioenergy sustainability policy for the use of biomass for heating, electricity and transport by the end of 2016.  Comprehensive safeguards need to be introduced to ensure that bioenergy is sustainable and avoids negative consequences on biodiversity, soil, water, land use and people.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
Related Stories

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • I have an alternative approach for developing countries.
    The agricultural sector in most Sub-Saharan countries is dominated by subsistence farming with very low investment levels and yields. The development of modern bio energy systems offers opportunities for investment and infrastructure improvements in agriculture with the promise to diversify agricultural production and thus to stimulate socio-economic development. In general, many African countries have suitable conditions for bioenergy development such as abundant labour and sufficient available arable land and water resources. Among the world’s continents, Africa has the highest incidence of food insecurity and poverty and the highest rates of population growth. Yet Africa also has the most arable land, the lowest crop yields, and by far the most plentiful land resources relative to energy demand. It is thus of interest to examine the potential of expanded modern bioenergy production in Africa. Here we consider bioenergy as an enabler for development, and provide an overview of modern bioenergy technologies with a comment on application in an Africa context. Experience with bioenergy in Africa offers evidence of social benefits and also some important lessons. In Brazil, social development, agricultural development and food security, and bioenergy development have been synergistic rather than antagonistic. Realizing similar success in African countries will require clear vision, good governance, and adaptation of technologies, knowledge, and business models to myriad local circumstances. Strategies for integrated production of food crops, livestock, and bioenergy are potentially attractive and offer an alternative to an agricultural model featuring specialized land use. If done thoughtfully, there is considerable evidence that food security and economic development in Africa can be addressed more effectively with modern bioenergy than without it. Modern bioenergy can be an agent of African transformation, with potential social benefits accruing to multiple sectors and extending well beyond energy supply per se.
    Drivers of Bioenergy in Africa • Rural development opportunities • Energy security • Energy access • Economic development- job creation, improved education, improved income, net savings • Low carbon emissions to the environment • Infrastructural development • Realization of MDGs e.g. fight against poverty and hunger
    Opportunities • Africa, as a region, has the most significant amount of underutilized renewable energy sources, but has been slow at mobilizing this potential. • Land available • Policies under development • Political good will? • Affordable labour • Regional economic blocks opening up the continent
    African is endowed with abundant natural resources and political good will exist • For Africa to sustainably develop bioenergy technologies and innovations, effective policies needed as well as more foreign investment and technology transfer
    Bio-Energy for Africa: Opportunities, Constraints and Trade-Offs Bio-energy, which refers to all fuels derived from biomass, is the largest single source of renewable energy. The proportion of bio-energy in some developing countries exceeds 90% of their primary energy supply. Bioenergy is an essential energy option for a wide-range of applications, and it will remain an important source of energy in most developing countries for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the current utilisation of bio-energy in Africa is unsustainable and inefficient. About 65% of Africans rely on traditional biomass for cooking. Most of these people live in rural areas. Coupled with efficiency levels of just 10-20% for burning biomass, bio-energy utilisation in Africa has exacerbated environmental impacts, in particular, deforestation. Bio-energy use for cooking has added to health problems and mortality as a result of the indoor air pollution it causes. However, there is huge potential for deploying modern, more efficient, biomass fuels in Africa. Bio-energy has the highest potential for expansion among renewable energy technologies, mainly because the technology is mature and is a relatively easy substitute for fossil fuels. Modern biomass technologies, such as biogas and improved cooking stoves, could be used as substitutes for traditional cooking stoves in the household sector. Biogas could also be used for power generation and transport. Bio-energy, in the form of bio-ethanol and biodiesel, could serve as a substitute for petroleum products in the transport sector. The diverse benefits of bio-energy may include reduced greenhouse gas emissions, creation of rural livelihoods, foreign exchange savings, and reduced dependence on imported sources of energy.
    Agave is a care -free growth plant which can be grown in millions of hectares of waste land and which produces Biofuel. Already Mexico is using it. Another Care free growth plant is Opuntia which generates Biogas. Biogas can be input to generate power through Biogas Generators. Biogas generators of MW size are available from China. Yet another option is Water Hyacinth for biogas. Water Hyacinth along with animal dung can produce biogas on a large scale and then power. In Kolleru lake in Godavari and Krishna Delta in Andhra Pradesh,India, it is available in 308 Sq. Km for nearly 8 months in a year.
    Crassulacean acid metabolism, also known as CAM photosynthesis, is a carbon fixationpathway that evolved in some plants as an adaptation to arid conditions In a plant using full CAM, the stomata in the leaves remain shut during the day to reduce evapotranspiration, but open at night to collect carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 is stored as the four-carbon acidmalate, and then used during photosynthesis during the day. The pre-collected CO2 is concentrated around the enzyme RuBisCO, increasing photosynthetic efficiency. Agave and Opuntia are the best CAM Plants. Biofuel/biogaspower/biochar can be obtained from these plants. The plants have multiple uses.
    What is needed in an agrarian country like ours is AGRO INDUSTRIES to utilise local resources and resourcefulness as advocated by Mahatma Gandhiji.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

    Posted by: Dr.A.Jagadeesh | 3 years ago | Reply