Alexa Morrison, RSPB Scotland Conservation Policy Officer, gives us an update on today's Scottish Government announcement on biomass sustainability standards.

A missed opportunity for Scotland to lead on biomass sustainability?

“They took all the trees, put ‘em in a tree museum” sang Joni Mitchell in the 1970s. Hopefully, half a century on, we won’t soon be singing, “they took all the trees, put ‘em in a dedicated biomass power station”, as the demand for using biomass (organic material such as wood from forests) to generate electricity grows at pace. Matters have not been helped by today’s announcement by the Scottish Government of disappointingly weak biomass sustainability standards.

These standards set the environmental criteria power companies must meet to use biomass to generate electricity or ‘bioenergy’ in Scotland. They are intended to protect wildlife and ensure carbon savings. However, despite some steps in the right direction, major gaps remain meaning the standards do not guarantee biomass will be sustainably sourced or actually reduce carbon emissions.

There are some positives in the standards, adopted to mirror those set by the UK Government in August. More carbon emissions reductions will be required, reaching 75% cuts by 2025. Until 2020, however, the target is a modest 60%, which may sound high, but we believe that delivered in the right way, bioenergy can deliver much more.

There is a welcome commitment to use independent standards to check that biomass comes from sustainably managed sources. However, the standards accepted do not provide sufficient social and environmental safeguards. Robust standards are needed to ensure increased use of bioenergy does not drive deforestation or food insecurity, or displace vulnerable communities from their land. This can only currently be achieved through Forest Stewardship Council certification.

The real disappointment, however, is that the Scottish Government has chosen to effectively ignore two key challenges presented by the use of biomass to generate electricity, the issue of carbon debt and indirect land-use change.

‘Carbon debt’ relates to the time it takes for the carbon emissions from burning biomass to be offset by new growth. Electricity producers are allowed to assume that burning biomass is ‘carbon neutral’ in their calculations, as trees and crops can be planted to reabsorb carbon. However, the European Commission Joint Research Centre concluded that whilst bioenergy from ‘residues, waste and residual wood’ can achieve carbon savings in the short term, when harvesting wood from the tree stem for bioenergy, there is an actual increase in emissions compared to fossil fuels, potentially for decades[1]. In order to avoid dangerous climate change, we need to reduce emissions rapidly, so this type of bioenergy is not a credible climate strategy.

The risk of demand for bioenergy displacing other land-uses, or ‘indirect land use change’, has also not been addressed. This is increasingly understood as a problem in the related field of biofuels, where demand for what was hoped to be a more sustainable, low carbon source of fuel has perversely led to forests being replaced with plantation crops, resulting in loss of biodiversity and carbon sinks. However, the Government has assumed that biomass will ‘generally’ come from ‘wastes from other processes, or grown on land which isn’t suitable for other uses (such as food production)’, which is by no means certain. In other words, this risk has been addressed by simply assuming it won’t happen, rather than ensuring it won’t.

It is essential that we properly quantify the emissions from bioenergy generation, and ensure that demand for biomass does not drive unsustainable deforestation or damage our wildlife. The RSPB believes it is possible for genuinely sustainable bioenergy to be a key part of the energy mix. We want to see support for bioenergy from waste and efficient, small-scale power generation from sustainable use of wood and energy crops, capturing heat for district heating systems or industry.  With good sustainability criteria, that faces up to the risks posed by bioenergy, we think this is possible. So far, the standards look like a missed opportunity for the Scottish Government to take a lead on biomass sustainability.

[1] Agostini, A., Boulamanti, A., Giuntoli, J., 2013, Carbon accounting of forest bioenergy, JRC Technical Notes