Greenhouse gas emissions reduction objectives: What is the current state of play?

Since 1990, year of the Kyoto protocol ratification, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in EU28 have steadily decreased to meet the european reduction targets. This reduction has been reinforced in 2008 by the implementation of the first European Climate & Energy package.

The initial, ambitious strategy rapidly borne fruit: 2020 objectives have already been reached at EU28 level as shown in the bellow graph. This contrasts with the current objective set for 2030, aiming at a cut of 40% in GHG emissions, when compared to 1990 levels.

While considering the EU28’s 2050 objectives of a 80% reduction, more ambitious climate measures should be deployed to reach the goals set for 2030. Looking at the below graphic, the European Commission seems in fact to put off until later its GHG reduction objective.

Energy is by far the most important emitting sector in EU28 ahead of other industrial sectors, agriculture and waste management activities.

In 2014, GHG emissions from the energy market represented 78% of the total EU28 GHG emissions. This is why it remains crucial to decarbonise the sector by a quicker phase out of fossil fuels.

How does bioenergy contribute to climate change mitigation in the EU?

Bioenergy is the largest renewable energy source in EU28, representing more than 60% of the total renewable energy consumption. In the past 20 years, bioenergy has significantly contributed to decarbonise the energy sector by replacing fossil fuels. If fossil fuels were used in heat, electricity and transport instead of bioenergy, the EU would have emitted 4.200 million tonnes more GHG over the last 15 years, following the EC’s Joint research center methodology (JRC)*.

To give a meaningful comparison, by replacing fossil fuels, bioenergy helped Europe to save GHG emissions levels equal to the combined emissions of 35 millions European over the last 15 years**.

For the year 2014 solely, the EU could avoid 365 million tonnes of CO2 eq of GHG emissions thanks to bioenergy*. Continuing with a comparison, this is slightly more than the total level emissions of Spain over the same period2.

If bioenergy wasn’t replacing fossils in heat, electricity and transport sector, the EU28 would have emitted 8 times more GHG than the actual level of emissions, as presented in the above graphic in 2014.

The use of fossils fuel would have emitted 23% more GHG in electricity, 10% more in heat and 2,5% more in transport*.

Air quality & solid bioenergy: What is the level of emissions of burning appliances?

Air quality is a growing concern across Member States. In this regard, the emissions of wood appliances have been questioned and many misunderstandings arised. Critics argue that the increased use of biomass for domestic heating leads to air pollution, specifically fine dust pollution – whereas burning fossil fuel doesn’t generate any substantial amount of fine dust. In fact, depending on a great number of factors, the combustion of wood can emit various pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide (CO). The degree of these emissions depends largely on the quality of combustion, the fuel and how the heating installation is operated3. Fine dust emissions due to wood burning are mainly caused by outdated heating devices such as old logwood stoves. These manually-fired systems often operate at a very low efficiency and due to an incomplete combustion emit significant amounts of particulate matter.

However, these observations don’t apply to modern, fully-automated wood boilers, like pellet heating systems for instance. With the potential to significantly improve air quality and reduce fine dust pollution.

The combustion technology of pellet boilers and stoves reduces fine dust emissions well below the European/international thresholds. Modern pellet heating systems have managed to reduce emissions dramatically, by electronic control of the combustion process, high temperatures in the combustion zone and perfect mixing of air and fuel. They also feature efficiency rates of over 90%. The most recent models can be operated in flue gas condensing mode, achieving over 100% efficiency based on the lower heating value of the fuel.

Besides reducing emissions, there has also been reduced significantly. While emissions from old logwood heating or oil heating systems contain significant amounts of soot and unburnt toxic hydrocarbons, emissions from pellet heating systems are due to the complete combustion of mostly inorganic salts that are water soluble and significantly less harmful. Replacing old logwood stoves and boilers by pellet systems leads to a reduction of fine dust emissions of up to 95% and allows to improve air quality without compromising the goal of using renewable energy.

The graphic above shows the level of emissions of organic gaseous compounds in different heating systems. In modern installations like pellet boilers, OGC emissions are 380 times lower than in old logwood boilers. First graphic below shows carbon monoxide emissions from different heating installations. Again, in modern installations, the emissions of this gas is 268 times lower than in logwood boilers.

Last graphic shows the difference in emission levels of fine dust between modern heating systems and older ones. Pellet boilers emit up to 18 times less than old logwood boilers.

In this context, it is essential to encourage owners of old fireplaces, convinced of the advantage of wood heating, to opt for modern installations while keeping all the authenticity of heating to the flame.

Bioenergy—an asset for EU forests?

Bioenergy covers a wide range of feedstocks and conversion technologies. However, more than 69% of the bioenergy feedstock in Europe is sourced from forests – this is commonly referred to as solid biomass. Therefore representing a key market driver for the whole bioenergy sector.

Bioenergy stakeholders do not use any type of wood indiscriminately: both for economic and environmental reasons, they mostly mobilise woody biomass issued from forest management operations and from by products of the wood industry. This helps valorising non-mobilised and/or low value biomass such as sawdust, mill residues, thinnings, low-quality wood, tops and limbs.

When looking at the EU28 wood removals according to end use, the majority goes to the wood industry (78%). Only a small fraction is used for energy (22%).

This indicates that bioenergy doesn’t necessarily compete with other uses of wood.

While this share varies between Member States, it is interesting to point out the case of Sweden and Latvia, the countries with the highest share of bioenergy in their gross final energy consumption (32% and 38% respectively). When one looks at their share of wood removals going for energy use, the percentage goes down to 8% and 10% respectively.

Contrary to common belief, EU28 forests have been steadily growing over the past decades. In 1990, European forests represented a total amount of 19,7 billion m3. In 2015, EU28 forest reached 26 billion m3, meaning that forests surface increased by 32% over the last quarter of a century4.

This growth is due to two main reasons: forest areas increasing and a growth of standing volumes. As far as forest areas are concerned, according to Eurostat, EU28 forests gained 322.800 hectares every year5. European forests are increasing by the size of a football field every minute.

This growth results from long lasting trends in Europe including afforestation, protection programmes developed in most Member States, and a decrease in agricultural areas.

In this context, maintaining and mobilising the full potential of European forest is becoming a central challenge, showing great opportunities for bio-based economies.

On average, about 62% of the annual forest increment in Europe is actually felled, meaning that 38% of this annual increment remains in forests as shown in the top right figure. However, the situation can vary from one country to another. Forest spreading is more common in the Mediterranean region, in countries such as Italy, France, Spain, and Slovenia, where at least 40% of the annual increment remains untouched.

Similarly, carbon stock in EU28 forests is constantly increasing over the past 15 years. Compared to 2000, carbon in the above -round fraction of forests increased by 19% and by 21% in the below-ground fraction in 2015.

The fact that forest stock keeps increasing is positive news for Europe, as it could lead to improved forest carbon stock capacity and strengthen all European wood-based industries.

On the flip side, this increase of forest stock can be due to a lack of forest management given the inappropriate ownership structures and logistic constraints.

In this context, a lack of control or management can generate concerns, especially in the Mediterranean region where regrowth is particularly important. In 2015 alone there were more than 58.000 forest fires registered in Europe6 with a total surface burnt of more than 256 thousand ha, releasing 950 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere*****.

Bioenergy can play a major role by giving an extra source of income to forest owners, municipalities and governments to manage their forests sustainably in the long run.

Bioenergy potential & EU 2030 decarbonisation objective?

Being the first source of renewable energy in 2017, the role of bioenergy in reducing the use of fossil fuels was significant in the last 20 years7.

For 2030, EU has set a target of a 40%8 reduction of GHG emissions compared to 1990 levels. This will require an increased share of renewables in the coming years. To reach these objectives, bioenergy’s role will remain crucial. In fact, if renewables like wind and solar will play an increasing role in the EU28 energy mix, intermittency will become a key issue. Bioenergy will remain the only storable and on-demand renewable energy source which can effectively help the EU28 decarbonize its energy sector. As biomass can run constantly or be quickly mobilized to fill an unexpected supply gap, it is a valuable ally of intermittent renewable technologies in securing energy supply.

Knowing the potential decarbonisation capacity of bioenergy is therefore essential for the EU28 future. As forests are dynamic systems, quantifying how much biomass can be further mobilized for energy purposes is not simple. Figures estimated by different studies vary largely as they depend on the taken assumptions.

Taking the outcomes of the EU funded project

Biomass futures9, experts have estimated a value range for bioenergy availability in Europe comprised between 353 and 411 Mtoe for 2030. Based on this, if the potential biomass resources were fully used in the heat sector instead of fossil fuels, GHG savings ranging from 1060-1235 Million tonnes of CO2 eq are to be expected. This amount of GHG saved would correspond to 33-38% of GHG emissions of the year 2030.