Not Truly Renewable

On January 17, lawmakers in the European Parliament voted in favor of strengthening the European Union's renewable energy goals. The resolution, which is not yet legally binding, sets a new target for member nations, asking that each meet 35 percent of its energy needs using renewable sources by 2030. The 2009-enacted target of sourcing 20 percent of energy from renewables by 2020 is still in effect.

While that seems like a step in the right direction, not everyone is in a celebratory mood. The Parliament's decision failed to include an amendment that proposed a cut on the use of biomass sourcing and biofuel use, which a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) supposedly support.

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According to a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters the day after the resolution passed, bioenergy sources such as wood may actually be more harmful than coal in the short-term.

"[A]lthough bioenergy from wood can lower long-run CO2 concentrations compared to fossil fuels, its first impact is an increase in CO2, worsening global warming over the critical period through 2100 even if the wood offsets coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel," wrote the researchers, who are experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Climate Interactive, the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Lowell Climate Change Initiative, and the UMass Lowell Department of Environmental, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The authors argued that the EU's insistence "that biofuels are carbon neutral" mistakenly presupposed that forest regrowth can adequately make up for emissions from bioenergy production and combustion. "The neutrality assumption is not valid because it ignores the transient, but decades to centuries long, increase in CO2 caused by biofuels," the study concluded.

Emissions Are Emissions

With the EU ranking third among the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters, behind only China and the United States, this mistaken notion about biomass could prove fatal to the continent's efforts to reduce CO2 levels to meet the Paris Climate Agreement's targets. The short-term increase in CO2 from biofuels could jeopardize the EU's current goal of cutting emissions by at least 40 percent in 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

“A molecule of CO2 emitted today has the same impact on the climate whether it comes from coal or biomass," study author John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told Renewables Now. "Declaring that biofuels are carbon neutral, as the EU, UK, and others have done, erroneously assumes forest regrowth happens quickly and fully offsets the emissions from biofuel production and combustion.”

Land-use specialist Felix Creutzig from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin also noticed this flaw in the new plan.

“Enabling the combustion of roundwood [full trees] for energy production creates a climate-harming carbon debt for decades to come," he told Nature. "That is a conceptual error that runs counter the climate-mitigation goals of Europe’s renewable-energy plans.”

The EU's decision, however, is not yet enforceable. The EU Parliament still needs to negotiate the plan with national governments and the EU Council, which just set a 27 percent renewable energy target for 2030 in December. These negotiations could address the dangers of biofuels while leaving the 30 percent renewable energy target intact.

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