EU bioenergy use: the invisible social and environmental harms

08 December 2016
Article

The EU's reputation for clean and sustainable energy conceals a dirtier reality, particularly where renewable energy policies and development are driven by corporate interests. Today, nearly two thirds of all “renewable” energy in the EU comes from bio-energy. Although bio-energy appears to provide a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, there are serious questions about its actual emissions profile, and about environmental and social conflicts which are created or exacerbated by the industrial-scale production of biomass to meet European energy needs.

A bioenergy sorghum crop is harvested near College Station. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo)
Bioenergy sorghum harvest / Photo credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/agrilifetoday/19501414921/

When the European Union signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 it committed to stabilizing carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels. Since then, the EU has implemented diverse policies focused on offsetting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and on attempting to reduce fossil fuel consumption by increasing the use of so-called “renewable” fuels. Partially in response to pressure from energy producers, the EU has relied increasingly on specific targets for renewable energy use per sector. By 2013, 12% of all energy consumed in the EU came from renewable sources.

Read also TNI's report Bioenergy in the EU

However, the popular image of clean and sustainable energy conceals a dirtier reality, particularly where renewable energy policies and development are driven by corporate interests. Today, nearly two thirds of all “renewable” energy in the EU comes from bio-energy ; by 2020, according to the National Renewable Energy Plans of EU member states, this figure will be 54%.  

Bioenergy refers to energy produced by burning recently-grown biomass like wood pellets, agroethanol, or agrodiesel. Agroethanol is produced from high starch or sugar food crops, like sugar and maize, through fermentation while agrodiesel is produced from oils. Oilseeds, palm oil, and sunflower oil are major sources, while meat industry byproducts and used cooking oil are real, but minor, sources. Second-generation bio-fuels are produced from non-food crops through more complex processes; a number of technological and economic challenges currently prevent the large-scale use of these fuels. Although bio-energy appears to provide a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, there are serious questions about its actual emissions profile, and about environmental and social conflicts which are created or exacerbated by the industrial-scale production of biomass to meet European energy needs.

Advocates argue that bioenergy is a solution to the climate crisis because it is less damaging to the environment than fossil fuels. However, carbon emissions from this kind of energy are routinely under-estimated as a result of what the European Environment Agency Scientific Committee has called a ‘serious accounting error’ in how carbon emissions are calculated.  Although emissions occur at various points in the lifecycle of agrofuel production, international emissions calculation standards from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) allow countries to count these as “zero emissions” fuels. It is assumed that all emissions related to the production of biofuels will be captured under accounting for other sectors, especially the complex and disputed Land-use, Land-use change and Forestry sector (LULUCF). However, emissions accounting in this sector is fraught with methodological and political difficulties and is also optional for many countries. Furthermore, because LULUCF-related emissions are calculated in the country in which they are produced, emissions generated to feed the European bioenergy market and energy needs are counted in producing countries, rather than where energy is consumed. Thus reliance on these “zero emissions” fuels in Europe creates the illusion that great progress is being made towards sustainability in the EU, while bringing significant negative consequences to the populations and environments of producing countries.

Despite the known impacts of bio-energy and  the acknowledged problems with its carbon accounting, policies to encourage increased use of bio-energy continue to expand, treating it as a key tool for reducing EU GHG emissions. For example, at the last Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Morocco (COP22), a group of 20 countries, including 7 EU Member States, launched an initiative called “biofuture” to support and promote bioeconomy development and the use of low-carbon fuels.  The recently presented EU Renewable Energy Directive also aims to increase  industrial bioenergy production and consumption in the EU.

Emissions, however, are not the only issue. While bio-energy policies were initially intended to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources, the EU is not able to meet its own needs for biomass for energy production. According to a 2010 study by Friends of the Earth, if all biomass for projected consumption were to be produced in the EU, biomass for energy generation would, by 2020, occupy 10.9% of all land currently cultivated for agriculture and 31.6% of the forested area in the EU. If consumption of bioenergy is to double, as expected, by 2030, an area of land and forest the size of Sweden and Poland combined will be needed to supply the raw material for the generation of bioenergy.  To date the EU has relied heavily on imported biomass for energy production, often from Southern countries. The EU has a significant overall trade deficit in raw materials  and, in recent years, imports of vegetable oils and oilseeds, used in bioenergy production, have reached a record-breaking share of total imports to the EU .

Using land outside its borders to meet the EU’s energy needs means that the EU is exporting a range of environmental and social conflicts. The production of biomass for agrofuel production increases pressure on land in the Global South, which can lead to communities’ displacement through land-grabbing as land is taken out of food production.  Furthermore, large-scale plantations have documented negative impacts on the quality and accessibility of fresh water,  and on soil fertility, bio-diversity  and ecological balance.

In addition to the inherent problems with exporting these conflicts to the Global South, the far-reaching and under-considered effects of EU bio-energy policy on land, environment, and food and water rights internationally put this policy in conflict with existing EU discourse on global development. In spite of a proclaimed commitment to “Policy Coherence for Development,” namely to “minimising contradictions and building synergies between different EU policies to benefit developing countries,”  the negative impacts of EU bioenergy policy have not been comprehensively considered. Indeed, EU development policies, with their emphasis on promoting access to markets, may be seen as ensuring a reliable supply of biomass for EU energy markets, sometimes at the expense of communities in the South.

Replacing (fossil) fuels with agrofuels will not solve the problems associated with the unsustainable level of energy consumption in the EU today. Although a relatively small proportion of overall energy used has so far been replaced with “renewable” energy, this has already been enough to reveal serious impacts on land, food, and water access for communities in the global South, as well as damage to the environment and bio-diversity, all in order to produce reductions in carbon emissions which may ultimately be nonexistent or dramatically overestimated.

Instead of attempting to replace one fuel or technology with another, developing a genuinely sustainable energy policy for the EU will require careful critical examination of how much energy can be used sustainably, as well as an examination of power in energy systems: who controls, and who benefits from, energy production, wherever it takes place.