9 December 2005

The European Commission adopted the “Biomass Action Plan”—a roadmap to increase the use of energy from forestry, agriculture and waste materials. Increased usage of biomass energy is promoted as a means to reduce Europe’s dependence on imported energy, cut greenhouse gas emissions, protect jobs in rural areas and extend the EU’s technological leadership in these sectors. The Plan outlines measures in three sectors: heating, electricity and transport. In parallel, the Commission adopted a report on the support of electricity from renewable energy sources.

According to the Plan, the use of renewables in the overall EU energy mix should increase from the current 4% to 12% by 2010. The Commission forecasts that the increased usage of bioenergy will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 209 million tons CO2-equivalent per year; provide direct employment for 250-300,000 people; and reduce reliance on imported energy from 48% to 42%. The main forms of biomass energy considered by the Commission include transport biofuels (made mostly from cereal, sugar and oil seed crops and waste oils), domestic biomass heating (using wood and wood residues), and the burning of wood wastes and straw in power plants to produce electricity and heat.

The Biomass Action Plan announces more than 20 actions, most of them to be implemented from 2006 onwards. For transport biofuels, they include promotion of “biofuels obligations”, through which suppliers include a minimum proportion of biofuels in the conventional fuel they place on the market. In 2006, the Commission will bring forward a report in view of a possible revision of the biofuels Directive 2003/30. The report will examine the implementation of the Directive in Member States. The EU biofuel market share is currently at 0.8%, which leaves little chance to achieve by 2010 the target of 5.75% that was set in 2003, said the Commission.

The Plan includes reviews of how fuel standards could be improved to encourage the use of biomass for transport, heating and electricity generation; investment in research, in particular in making liquid fuels out of wood and waste materials; and a campaign to inform farmers and forest owners about energy crops. The Commission will also work on future EU legislation to encourage the use of renewable energy in heating.

In the meantime, the promotion of biofuels by the EU and other governments has been a subject of increasing criticism by environmentalists who point out that sustainable energy policies must focus on energy conservation, rather than on satisfying the growing demand for transportation fuels with biomass energy. The rapidly increasing demand for biofuels in industrialized countries has already caused large expansion in biofuel feedstock production, particularly in South-East Asia for palm oil plantations (palm oil is the most cost-effective biodiesel feedstock) and in Brazil for sugar cane and soy beans. In both cases, the growing biofuel industry is a major cause of the destruction of tropical rainforests.

European Commission press release