Bioenergy: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

New research by BirdLife and Transport & Environment coming up with some alarming conclusions

Wood harvesting in Germany (©Andreas Beer)

Amid growing speculation that the EU will publish its much-anticipated Renewable Energy Package at the end of this month, Sini Eräjää dispels the myth that all bioenergy is ‘Good’.

European bioenergy policies have been built on the myth that bioenergy – being a ‘renewable resource’ – is all good.  Good for the climate, good for a more sustainable future. However, we have a saying here at BirdLife: ‘All that glitters is not gold’ and, similarly, all that is renewable is not sustainable. Quite simply, bioenergy is not the clean dream we all hoped it would be: in some cases, it actually results in an increase in CO2 emissions, exceeding fossil fuel use. The policies driving the rapid growth in bioenergy use need to separate the good from the bad, and reveal the ugly truth behind the real climate impacts of bioenergy.


Good bioenergy exists. ‘Waste not; want not’: the best potential for biomass that could be used for energy lies in different kinds of residues and wastes, particularly agricultural residues, i.e. the parts of crops left on the field after harvesting. Manure, too, has significant potential, together with residues and wastes from existing forest industries.

However, the sad fact is that there is far less scope for utilising bioenergy sustainably than was initially hoped. BirdLife Europe (along with other NGOs), has commissioned numerous studies to understand how much biomass can be burned for energy without damaging the environment or the climate. In our analyses, we took 4 fundamental points about existing uses of land and wood into consideration

(i) The need to leave more land and forests aside for biodiversity.

(ii) The need to maintain nature’s natural carbon storage (in trees and soil) and not diminish them for bioenergy purposes.

(iii) The need to ensure precious natural resources are not wasted but used in a resource efficient way.

(iv) Europe’s demand for biomass should not lead the EU to further expand its ecological footprint beyond its territories.

New research, soon-to-be published by BirdLife and Transport & Environment, has taken all these considerations into account, and has come up with some alarming conclusions. Only a maximum 150 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) of biomass could be used for energy in 2030 in a sustainable way. This falls short of the Commission’s projections on bioenergy demand in 2030 and would make up only 30% of the amount of renewables needed to meet the EU’s 2030 targets. This is an important finding, considering that bioenergy currently bioenergy makes up 60% of renewable energy sources. Not only is there less sustainable biomass available (for energy) than hoped, it is also a very different kind of biomass. Right now, we’re mostly burning wood in various form – we need to move to using more a more varied mixture of residues from agriculture and industries.


‘Bad’ bioenergy, however, is not simply anything over this 30% marker. Bad bioenergy is also born out of misused biomass – namely, food crops and whole trees, but also tree stumps and deadwood. Government subsidies and incentives for bioenergy are driving the rapid growth of this sector – subsidies (such as a guaranteed price for electricity from bioenergy etc.), are making the burning of good quality wood, food crops and whole trees financially attractive. We’re exposing more and more horror stories of this kind of bad bioenergy use increasing.

While, many may have already heard about tropical forests cleared in Indonesia for palm oil plantations that supply biodiesel to Europe or about the devastation of forests in Southern USA to make pellets for European power plants, very few people realise that these kind of scenarios are also happening here in Europe. On 22 November, BirdLife Europe will publish The Black Book of Bioenergy – a graphic narrative of ‘good intentions gone bad’ where we examine 8 recent cases that unmask the culprits behind the great carbon con of bioenergy. Stay tuned to hear stories of Finland’s iconic forest landscape being ravaged for bioenergy or new flood risks created in beautiful Emilia Romagna, Italy after the burning of its riverside forests.


The worst part of the European bioenergy story is its ‘green-washing’, i.e. the falsely perceived positive climate impacts of bioenergy use. European energy and climate policies pretend that all bioenergy is carbon neutral – an argument wholly unsupported by the international community of climate scientists or the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The ‘carbon con’ of bioenergy comes down to a misinterpretation of well-intended book-keeping rules. It was agreed that, for carbon accounting purposes, emissions released from cutting down trees (or harvesting crops…or ploughing soil for bioenergy production) did not need to feature in the energy sector’s cheques and balances, because they would be accounted for elsewhere in the books. Curiously though, the ‘elsewhere’ was often forgotten and meddled with, while the energy sector stormed ahead with a so-called ‘zero carbon’ bioenergy. Almost sounds like a sneaky card trick from an old Western movie, doesn’t it? Well, it pretty much is. While this free pass is convenient for the energy sector, these emissions still need to be factored in ‘somewhere’. Even more importantly, policies need to be changed so that these emissions are never be produced in the first place or the planet’s climate will blindly cruise into the red.


It’s understandable that the misinformed public wants to hold on to the green hope once seemingly offered by bioenergy. But it’s unforgiveable for those in the know to continue the charade. The ‘jig’ – as they say – ‘is up!’ In less than a month, the European Commission will publish a new policy proposal on the sustainability of bioenergy. This is a golden opportunity for the EU to show Europe’s carbon con-artists that there is a new sheriff in town. The Commission needs to lay down the law – rule out the bad and straighten-out the ugly. Only then, will the ‘good’ be the last one standing in the final scene.


More information on the limits of sustainable bioenergy in Europe can be found on the blog EU Bioenergy.


BirdLife Europe, press release, 2016-11-02.


BirdLife Europe and Central Asia
European Commission
European Union
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)