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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Biomass: the miracle solution?

The European Commission's Biomass Action Plan should reduce oil imports by 8%, prevent greenhouse gas emissions of 209 million tons CO2-equivalent per year and create up to 300,000 new jobs. Too good to be true?

The Commission adopted the Biomass Action Plan on 7 December 2005. The main objective of the Action Plan is to double the use of bio-energy sources (wood, wastes, agricultural crops) in the EU's energy mix by 2010. Currently, the EU meets about 4% of its energy needs from biomass. The plan outlines 31 measures to promote biomass in heating and cooling, electricity production and transport (biofuels).

Main actions proposed include:

* new EU legislation on the use of renewable energy, including biomass for heating and cooling (2006);
* a possible revision of the biofuels directive (2006) which might set national targets for the share of biofuels and would oblige fuel suppliers to use biofuels;
* Member States national biomass action plans;
* development of an industry-led "Biofuel technology platform";
* research into second-generation biofuels.

The Commission's report states several benefits from the doubling of biomass energy:

* the share of fossil fuels in the EU's energy mix would decrease from 80% to 75% and 8% less crude oil would have to be imported. This would also have a beneficial effect on oil prices;
* greenhouse gas emissions would be 209 million tons CO2-equivalent lower per year;
* 250.000 to 300.000 jobs could be created in the agriculture and forestry sector.

The direct cost would be around 9 billion euros per year. This is equivalent to an increase of about 1.5 cents per litre of petrol and 0.1 cents per kWh of electricity, according to the report.

Three Member States (the Netherlands, Germany and the UK) already have or are preparing national biomass action plans.


The use of more biomass energy poses several challenges and faces quite a number of important obstacles:

* socio-economic:
o energy from biomass is still, in general, more expensive than the current price of fossil fuels; more technology research and development will be needed to maximise the energy output and efficiency of biomass technologies;
o as biocrops production will need more agricultural land, this might compete with the need for land used for food production and could according to some critics even lead to more hunger in the world;
* environmental:
o what will be the impact of large-scale bio-energy production on biodiversity, soil, water use and supply?
o what if the drive for biofuels in the developed world would lead to further destruction of tropical rainforest in countries like Brasil?
o although scientific studies indicate that the use of biomass is "carbon neutral", not all scientists agree. Some studies even show that conversion of natural ecosystems to energy plantations might result in more carbon emissions from the soil because of the accelerated decay of organic matter.
* public acceptance:
o as the report itself indicates there is reluctance among major energy and fuel suppliers and car and boiler manufacturers;
o there is a lack of awareness among consumers.


Green NGOs WWF, Greenpeace, BirdLife and the EEB warned the Commission to ensure that the biomass action plan "include adequate environmental and social safeguards". “If managed sustainably, bioenergy can help us to cut greenhouse gas emissions and restore degraded land,” said Ariel Brunner, BirdLife's Agriculture Policy Officer. “However, poorly managed production does little to reduce emissions and can have a devastating impact on the environment.”


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