Friday, 03 May 2019 09:47

Climate adaptation in European forests: which role for bioenergy?

Forests are a key topic of discussion when it comes to the European climate policy. All stakeholders seem to agree: within forests lies significant potential for mitigating the adverse effects of climate change.

But how are forests going to fulfil these huge expectations? The pathways are plenty, as highlighted by the 2050 long-term strategy published by the European Commission in November 2018, a document elucidating the “strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate-neutral economy by 2050” and foreseeing different scenarios among which some put more emphasis on the forest carbon sink and others more on the substitution of fossil fuels by bioenergy.

bioenergyeurope logo 2019With all spotlights on mitigation, it is unfortunate that discussions on climate adaptation remain in the shadow. Forests are increasingly exposed to natural disturbances due to climate change. Today wild fires, storms and insect outbreaks affect forests and warmer temperatures call for considerable adaptations in European forests, for instance a change from conifers to broad leaf tree species. In this regard, maximising the carbon sink of the forest could literally fire back when the wood stocked in the forests is attacked by wild fires.

There are many ways to make forests resilient towards climate change, and should be better explored. For instance, incentives are needed to motivate small owners to put in place sustainable forest management measures to reduce the risk of natural disturbances. Forest-based industries have to adapt to an increased offer of hard wood as compared to soft wood. And political discussions will be needed to create a fair system of support for climate adaptation measures.

Climate adaptation measures cannot be left to the forest owner alone, but support is needed from forest-based industries and policy-makers.

The municipality of Serra (Spain) is an example of how bioenergy is an integral part of the solution to climate adaptation. Since 85% of Serra’s 5.730 hectares of surface are forested, a bioenergy project led by municipal engineer and communal authority Juan José Mayans, has sought to convert green waste from gardening, agriculture, and fire-preventing forestry into a fuel suitable for local use.

Fire-preventative forestry involves reducing the density of biomass in the forest through sustainable forest management which can cost up to €10.000 per hectare. Last winter, Serra’s work protected 130 hectares of forest while producing 300 tonnes of high-quality pellets– 200 of which were used in biomass boilers to heat public buildings, and 100 made available at low prices for residents of Serra. The whole Serra's pellet production capacity is 800 - 1.000 tonnes of pellet per year, as the production will increase more hectarees will be protected and the remainder pellet production will go to the local wood market, contributing to an economic cycle that decreases the high cost of forestry works. In the past four winters, Serra has been able to reduce CO2 emissions by 245.000 kg and protect 130 hectares of forest last year alone, with hopes to protect 2.500 hectares by the end of 2024.

The success of such projects has led to replication elsewhere. Recently the European Commission has approved support scheme in Portugal for biomass installations located close to forest areas affected by the risk of wild fires.[1] The scheme will incentivise forest owners to manage their forests, stimulating the local economy by selling the forest residues to bioenergy producers.

Best practices must become the norm: for this to become a reality, political support is needed. If forests should continue to be an asset for climate mitigation, climate adaptation must reach the top of the agenda of the next European Commission and joint solutions must be found with all forest-based industries.

[1] European Commission: State aid Commission approves a € 320million scheme to support biomass energy installations close to forests at risk of fires in Portugal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/news/state-aid-commission-approves-eu320-million-scheme-support-biomass-energy-installations-close-forests-risk-fires-portugal-2019-jan-08_en

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