Biomass is derived from organic material such as trees, plants, and agricultural and urban waste. It can be used for heating, electricity generation, and transport fuels. Increasing the use of biomass in the EU can help diversify Europe's energy supply, create growth and jobs, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. It is also needed in the electricity production to balance variable renewables.
Biomass for energy (bioenergy) continues to be the main source of renewable energy in the EU, with a share of almost 60%. The heating and cooling sector is the largest end-user, using about 75% of all bioenergy. More facts and key messages are available in the “Brief on biomass for energy in the EU” (2019).
EU rules on sustainable biomass
For biomass to be effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it must be produced in a sustainable way.
Biomass production involves a chain of activities ranging from the growing of feedstock to final energy conversion. Each step along the way can pose different sustainability challenges that need to be managed.
Biomass in the Renewable Energy Directive
To count towards the renewables targets, or to be eligible for subsidies by EU countries, renewable energy sourced from biomass needs to fulfil sustainability criteria. The recast Renewable Energy Directive 2018/2001 extends sustainability criteria to cover also large-scale biomass for heat and power, in addition to biofuels and bioliquids for transport, It also adds new criteria for
- agriculture waste and residues, requiring evidence of the protection of soil quality and soil carbon, and for agriculture biomass, requiring evidence that the raw material is not sourced from highly biodiverse forests
- forest biomass, requiring bioenergy generators to demonstrate that the country of origin has laws in place a) avoiding the risk of unsustainable harvesting and b) accounting of emissions from forest harvesting. If such evidence cannot be provided, bioenergy generators need to demonstrate sustainability compliance at the level of the biomass sourcing area.
- new biofuels plants need to deliver at least 65% fewer direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than the fossil fuel alternative. New biomass-based heat and power plants need to deliver at least 70% (80% in 2026) fewer GHG emissions than the fossil fuel alternative
- bioelectricity, requiring that large scale plants (above 50 MW) apply highly efficient cogeneration technology, or apply Best Available Techniques (BAT) or achieve 36% efficiency (for plants above 100 MW-), or use carbon capture and storage technology
These criteria are being implemented by EU countries, who were obliged to transpose the directive at the latest by end of June 2021. They can introduce more stringent sustainability criteria.
The criteria are complementary to the safeguards set out by EU climate and environmental legislation, in particular by the Regulation on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry 2018/841 (LULUCF). The regulation makes sure that all sectors contribute to the EU's 2030 emission reduction target, including the land use sector.
The Commission’s proposal (2021) to revise the Renewable Energy Directive promotes a gradual shift away from conventional biofuels to advanced biofuels (mainly produced from non-recyclable waste and residues) and other alternative renewable fuels (e-fuels). The EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 considers that this approach should continue for all forms of bioenergy, and the use of whole trees and food and feed crops for energy production – whether produced in the EU or imported – should be minimised.
Implementing Act on guidance for EU countries
The Commission is currently finalising an Implementing Act providing uniform conditions for implementation of the revised directive’ sustainability criteria for forest biomass.
The draft Implementing Act was subject to a 4-week public feedback period in April 2021 to gather views of all stakeholders. The act is currently with the responsible Comitology Committee and should be finalised in the second half of 2021.
Strengthened sustainability criteria for biofuels, bioliquids and biomass fuels
As announced in the European Green Deal, the Commission has proposed a revision of the Renewable Energy Directive. It includes a further targeted strengthening of the biomass sustainability criteria and will take up recommendations of the report “The use of woody biomass for energy production in the EU”, by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre.
The revised directive includes the extension of no-go areas for forest biomass to protect in particular primary and old-grown forests, as well as wet- and peatland. It also requires to avoid the use of roots and stumps and to minimise large clear-cuts. The proposed rules introduce an obligation on EU countries to design their national support schemes in accordance with the biomass cascading principle whereby woody biomass is used according to its highest economic and environmental added value.
- Report: The use of woody biomass for energy production in the EU (2021)
- Study: Sustainable and optimal use of biomass for energy in the EU beyond 2020 (2017)