- A global biomass boom continues unabated with Japan, the European Union and United Kingdom among those governments providing large subsidies for the burning of wood to make energy.
- All three governments have developed life cycle greenhouse gas emission standards for biomass power plants, but forest advocates say those standards rely on multiple loopholes to avoid any real carbon savings.
- Those loopholes include not counting carbon discharged from power plant smokestacks, the biggest source of emissions in the biomass life cycle, while continuing to erroneously count biomass as carbon neutral, according to industry critics.
- Another loophole grandfathers in existing biomass power plants, not requiring them to meet new greenhouse gas life cycle emission standards and, in Japan’s case, asking those plants to count but not reduce emissions.
Starting this April, Japan will implement a new life cycle greenhouse gas emission standard for biomass power plants supported by its feed-in tariff subsidy for renewable energy. Designed to ensure that forest biomass usage actually reduces carbon emissions compared with fossil fuels, Japan’s new standard is similar to those already implemented by fellow forest biomass users like the United Kingdom and European Union.
However, forest advocates warn that all three standards contain major loopholes and therefore aren’t doing enough to reduce emissions: They do not apply to biomass plants approved before a certain date, nor do they count the largest source of forest biomass emissions: the CO2 released when wood is burned.
Although biomass power plant smokestack emissions are counted as zero under international carbon accounting rules, scientists have shown that forest biomass releases more carbon per unit of energy than that produced by coal. The “life cycle” greenhouse gas standards should more accurately be called “partial life cycle” standards, say forest advocates.
In Japan, for example, wood pellets imported from Canada — Japan’s second-largest wood pellet supplier — release just 60 grams of CO2 equivalent per megajoule (g CO2/MJe) from production, harvesting and shipping, but almost 450 g CO2/MJe across their whole life cycle, according to a document prepared by the Japanese nonprofit Biomass Industrial Society Network that was shared with Mongabay. The vast majority of emissions come when the wood pellets are burned. Despite this fact, nations continue counting biomass as a carbon neutral fuel.
A 2021 study, previously reported by Mongabay, from the U.K. policy institute Chatham House and the U.S.-based Woodwell Climate Research Center found that full life cycle emissions for wood pellets — encompassing production, transportation and burning — would account for 2.8-3.6% of the U.K.’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019; those emissions increase global warming but are unacknowledged due to an international carbon accounting rule loophole.
According to the same study, although energy-related emissions across the former EU28 fell by 26% between 1990 and 2019, “if emissions from biomass of all types are included, the reduction is just 15%.” Although forest biomass does not account for the whole 11% discrepancy, the study illustrates the scale of biomass emissions, first and foremost at the smokestack.
A faulty life cycle standard
Although forest advocates see Japan’s new partial life cycle standard as a step in the right direction, they are skeptical of its efficacy. The Japanese standard, for example, only requires existing biomass plants to disclose, rather than actually limit, their partial life cycle emissions.
“I think it’s positive that Japan is looking into how to account for emissions from biomass. Unfortunately, the actions taken to date are woefully insufficient and aren’t going to do anything meaningful to actually limit those emissions,” Roger Smith, Japan director of the environmental nonprofit Mighty Earth, said in an interview with Mongabay.
“Just counting or reporting is nice, but climate change doesn’t care about your accounting,” Smith added. “The important thing is actually reducing emissions in the near term.” Biomass burned to make energy can only truly be classified carbon neutral if measured in the long term — the decades it takes for a carbon-storing tree that is burned to be replaced by an adult tree.
Disclosing partial life cycle emissions is “better than nothing, because it will put some pressure on [biomass users],” Sayoko Iinuma, a member of the Japanese nonprofit Global Environmental Forum, said in an interview with Mongabay. But even that emission disclosure has a loophole: “The biggest problem with biomass is that the smokestack emissions are counted as zero.”
This carbon accounting problem is not limited to Japan. Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, wrote in an email to Mongabay that the EU’s biomass standard ignores “the biggest source of emissions — the CO2 emitted by burning the fuel itself.” The EU standard also “falls short of what the [biomass] industry is already achieving,” meaning the current rules won’t drive further reductions in emissions from harvesting, processing and shipping either.
“The U.K. standard is better,” Booth continued, “because it appears to be low enough that it disqualifies [imported wood] pellets.” However, she highlighted that the U.K. standard does not apply to biomass power plants built before 2021.
Biomass life cycle standards leave out smokestack emissions
The EU’s partial biomass life cycle standard compares emissions from harvesting, manufacturing and transporting biomass with a standardized fossil fuel smokestack emission value, in this case 183 g CO2/MJe for electricity generated. As laid out in its Renewable Energy Directive (RED II), biomass plants must reduce emissions by “at least” 70% at plants starting operation from 2021, and 80% at plants starting operation in 2026.
However, wood pellet imports to Europe are already able to achieve even the lower target. “The new EU standard will do nothing to constrain wood pellet imports, even those from North America with maximal transport emissions,” wrote Booth and Ben Mitchell in their 2020 report “Paper Tiger.”
The authors also warned about European Union smokestack emissions: “As the [EU’s] GHG criteria do not count emissions from burning the biomass itself, they are of no utility in determining the actual atmospheric CO2 impact of burning forest biomass.”
Unlike the EU, the U.K.’s partial life cycle emission standard, introduced in September 2018, is strict enough, in effect, to prohibit new wood pellet imports, a major source of the U.K.’s forest biomass fuel. The new standard of 8.1 g-CO2/MJe was a major drop from the previous 55.6 g-CO2/MJe. PFPI’s calculations found that no wood pellets could meet the standard.
However, the U.K.’s latest standard applies only to biomass plants built between 2021 and 2026, meaning its prohibitive restrictions do not apply to existing plants. This includes Drax Power Station, which PFPI called “the chief offender.” Drax, the nation’s biggest power plant and “biggest carbon emitter,” according to critics, is solely fueled by wood pellets and though highly profitable, relies on large government subsidies to thrive, as do biomass plants globally.
Drax, and two other U.K. biomass plants already in the pipeline when the new standard was introduced in 2018, were set to consume roughly 3 million metric tons of imported pellets per year, according to PFPI’s calculations at the time.
Under Japan’s soon-to-be implemented standard, new biomass plants must be able to reduce their partial life cycle emissions compared with a standardized fossil fuel smokestack emission value by 50% from 2023 onward, and by 70% from 2030. But although existing biomass plants in Japan are required to calculate and disclose their partial life cycle emissions from now on, they aren’t obligated to meet the reduction targets.
Japan based its calculation methods on the EU’s standard. However, while PFPI found that the EU standard still allowed wood pellet imports, calculations by Japanese nonprofit Biomass Industrial Society Network showed that wood pellets imported to Japan from the U.S., Canada and Vietnam failed to clear the 70% reduction target.
“The most important thing is not the specifics of how the [partial life cycle] emissions are calculated, but who the standard applies to,” Iinuma said. In Japan, “it only applies to projects newly approved for the feed-in tariff subsidy, but, since 2018, when the subsidy was changed from a flat rate to a bidding system, there have been almost no new proposed plants.”
Although Japan’s wood pellet imports continue to rise dramatically, most are feeding already approved biomass plants that are gradually coming online. In Iinuma’s view, Japan has created “a standard that no one has to follow.”
“Is it in line with a livable future?”
An official from Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy failed to comment when asked whether Japan’s partial life cycle greenhouse gas standard for biomass was sufficient to help the country achieve its emissions reduction targets.
When posed the same question, a U.K. government spokesperson wrote in an email to Mongabay that “biomass has a key role to play in delivering a more secure, clean energy sector in Britain, having generated 12.9% of the U.K.’s total electricity last year, helping to reduce our exposure to volatile global gas prices.”
Despite the short-term energy security it provides, forest biomass usage in the U.K. continues to face criticism from both climate advocates and members of the U.K. government.
“Our upcoming Biomass Strategy [is] set to review how this resource could be best utilized across the economy to help achieve net zero,” the government spokesperson added. The new strategy, due in the second quarter of 2023, “will also assess the U.K.’s current biomass sustainability criteria and set out recommendations for further enhancements.”
A spokesperson from the European Commission did not respond to a request for comment from Mongabay.
National greenhouse gas standards are just one way to calculate and reduce emissions from biomass. Mighty Earth’s Smith pointed to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a framework to measure emissions in both the public and private sectors, which many companies directly or indirectly refer to when calculating their emissions, as another tool to help reveal the full climate impacts of burning forest biomass for energy. The protocol recommends the disclosure of biogenic, e.g., smokestack, emissions.
“For a life cycle greenhouse gas standard to be meaningful, it really needs to be strict,” Smith concluded. “It needs to be in line with keeping global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s the whole thing about it — is it in line with a livable future?”
Banner image: A wood pellet mill in North Carolina. Japan, the U.K. and the EU all source wood pellets from the southeastern United States. Image by Annelise Giseburt.
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