Biomass energy and forests: finding the missing emissions

Duncan Brack, Chatham House

Many countries are currently expanding their use of biomass for electricity and heat as part of their efforts to reduce carbon emissions. But the current greenhouse gas accounting framework fails to account for a significant quantity of the real emissions from biomass use.

In 2011, biomass accounted for about eight per cent of total renewable electricity generation; International Energy Agency projections suggest this could triple over the next twenty years. Wood, and particularly wood pellets, is the biomass fuel of choice. EU member states are the main source of demand, and their consumption exceeds EU production; in recent years imports have grown substantially, mainly from the US and also from Canada and Russia.

Policy frameworks generally treat biomass energy as zero-carbon, in the same way as other renewables like solar or wind. This is thanks to the greenhouse gas inventory and reporting guidance developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In order to avoid double counting emissions from forest biomass – within both the energy sector, when the biomass is burned, and the land-use sector, when the biomass is harvested – the rules provide that emissions should be reported within the land-use sector only. This was a rational decision, but problems arise because of the different ways in which emissions are counted in the land-use sector. In practice, accounting of biomass emissions in the energy sector are not being fully balanced by accounting in the land-use sector.

Kyoto Protocol parties were given a choice of baselines for forest management. Three chose to use historic baselines (as in other sectors, e.g. energy), and 34 business-as-usual baselines, where only changes in emissions compared to what was expected to occur are accounted for. And the problem is that a number of countries included significant increases in biomass energy use in their projections, which will therefore not be counted against their national emissions targets. And they won't be counted against the emissions targets of the country in which the biomass is used for energy. Effectively, they are 'missing' emissions.

Another problem arises if the source of the biomass lies outside the control framework – as is now the case with the US, a Kyoto non-party; EU emissions from US-sourced biomass are currently completely unaccounted for. Hopefully this won't be a problem with any new agreement.

What is the volume of missing emissions? Unfortunately it is not possible to tell, because national data isn't complete. We do know, however, that in 2012 Annex I countries in aggregate emitted almost 900 MtCO2 from biomass combustion, about five per cent of total Annex I greenhouse gas emissions. Some of that will have been accounted for in the land-use sector; a significant proportion of it won't.

Under the right conditions, biomass energy has a future in efforts to combat climate change. But at the moment a quirk of the accounting rules has created a perverse incentive for countries to invest in biomass energy, counting it as a carbon-neutral source even when a proportion of the associated emissions in the land-use sector are going unaccounted for.

The focus of the arguments in Paris this week is whether to include land-use and forest emissions in reporting at all. There are clearly good arguments to include it – but if that is the decision made, parties need to fix the loophole that can allow biomass energy emissions to go unreported. We need more detail on the type, source and country of origin of the biomass used, full reporting of emissions from the land-use sector, and consistency in national reporting from the land-use and from the energy sectors. In this way we can move towards a system that accurately reflects the atmospheric impacts of forest-based biomass energy.

MORE INFO

For more detail on this issue, including a series of national case studies, see the paper 'Forest-based biomass energy accounting under the UNFCCC: finding the "missing" carbon emissions', from Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs, UK). For a copy, please email Jens Hein ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ). The paper will be published as part of a broader study on the impacts of biomass energy on forests and the climate in 2016.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Duncan Brack is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House