By Paul Homewood
h/t Ian Magness
- On December 15, Australia became the first major economy worldwide to reverse itself on its renewable classification for woody biomass burned to make energy. Under the nation’s new policy, wood harvested from native forests and burned to produce energy cannot be classified as a renewable energy source.
- That decision comes as the U.S., Canada, Eastern Europe, Vietnam and other forest nations continue gearing up to harvest their woodlands to make massive amounts of wood pellets, in order to supply biomass-fired power plants in the UK, EU, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere.
- In the EU, forest advocates continue with last-ditch lobbying efforts to have woody biomass stripped of its renewable energy designation, and end the ongoing practice of providing large subsidies to the biomass industry for wood pellets.
- Science has found that biomass burning releases more carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy produced than coal. Australia’s decision, and the EU’s continued commitment to biomass, creates a conundrum for policymakers: How can major economies have different definitions of renewable energy when it comes to biomass?
Forest advocates in Australia — the world’s 13th largest economy — say they scored a major environmental victory on December 15 when the ruling Labor Party revised a key regulation, rejecting the renewable energy classification of wood harvested from native forests and burned to make energy. Previously, under the country’s renewable energy policy, woody biomass had been classified as a renewable energy source.
The impact of this regulatory change is perhaps most significant for the setback it may pose to the biomass industry globally, hindering the multibillion-dollar wood pellet industry from getting started Down Under at a time when pellet production is rising in the U.S. Southeast and British Columbia in order to supply growing demand to the EU, UK and Asia.
“The changes [in Australia] mean that native forest biomass is no longer considered an ‘eligible renewable energy source’ for the purposes of [the nation’s] Renewable Energy Target, and electricity it generates cannot be used to create tradable Large-scale Generation Certificates [for replacing coal],” Chris Bowen, Australia’s minister of climate change and energy, said in a statement. “We have listened to the community and acted to address their concerns.”
Australia, by its decision, is taking a very different course than the European Union, where woody biomass — despite growing public opposition — remains defined as a renewable energy source, is heavily government subsidized as a result, and makes up 60% of the EU’s renewable energy mix. Australia is among the few G20 countries without a thriving biomass industry; at present it neither produces nor burns wood pellets at any scale.
But that situation was poised to change, according to Virginia Young, a forest advocate with Wilderness Australia, an NGO.
“Two big power stations in Queensland were on the verge of converting from coal to biomass,” Young told Mongabay in an interview from Montreal, where she was attending the United Nations COP15 biodiversity conference. “There are [coal] plants in Victoria and New South Wales that were looking to convert. They were talking with Drax [the world’s largest consumer of wood pellets for energy based in the United Kingdom] about how to make it happen. All this was about to start.”
But without the renewable designation, biomass development in Australia is all but dead in the water.
Part of the policy change appears to be driven by the new government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, which is intent on quickly hitting its 43% carbon emissions reduction target by 2030, meeting its Paris Agreement pledge. Young said that when forest advocates recognized the short timetable available for accomplishing that commitment, they “flew into action” to lobby intensely for the renewable energy policy change.
Scientists note that it requires many decades for woody biomass to qualify as a renewable energy source and truly help a nation achieve its net zero carbon emissions goals; that’s because it takes a decades for the carbon released into the atmosphere from burned trees to be reabsorbed by newly planted, slow-growing replacement trees.
“This is a big win for the community, who want the electricity sector decarbonized as quickly as possible and do not want to see native forests logged to enable coal-fired generators to switch to burning forests instead of coal,” Bob Debus, chairman of Wilderness Australia, an NGO, said in a statement.
Australia’s reluctance to embrace woody biomass has led it to invest more heavily in zero-carbon renewable energy.
In 2021, 29% of Australia’s total energy mix came from renewables such as solar, wind and hydro; just 1% came from burning biogas and nonwoody biomass. By comparison, the 27-country EU got 22% of its total energy mix from what it calls renewables in 2020. But when wood pellets are removed from that calculation, the EU’s zero-carbon renewables are closer to 9% of total energy.