The decision made by Australia to exclude burning native forest biomass from renewable energy classification has been welcomed by forest advocates as a victory for nature and the climate. The world-leading move could have global implications for the damaging practice of burning forests for energy.

In December, Climate and Energy Minister Chris Bowen announced that electricity generated by burning Australian forest biomass is no longer classed as an “eligible renewable energy source” for the purposes of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target. The electricity it generates is also no longer compatible with tradeable large-scale generation certificates, he confirmed in a statement.

The decision reflects the “strong and longstanding community views” raised in the government’s consultation process, which received over 2900 submissions. The move aims to ensure public confidence that the Renewable Energy Target is “delivering genuinely renewable and sustainable forms of energy”, the statement confirmed. 

Scientists say biomass is a ‘false solution’

Globally, the forest biomass industry is mired in controversy and accusations of false sustainability claims. Australia’s decision is therefore a long-overdue recognition of the damage of burning forest biomass under the guise of a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. In an open letter sent to world leaders in 2021, over 500 scientists called wood biomass a “false solution” to the climate crisis and devastating to biodiversity. Burning forest biomass can, in fact, release more carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per unit of energy produced than coal.

Furthemore, subsidies for forest biomass energy generation can incentivise the deforestation of irreplaceable old-growth forests. This can have devastating impacts on habitats and biodiversity and threaten endangered species. For example, one whistleblower from Enviva, the world’s biggest wood pellet producer, told Mongabay in 2022 that the company was falsely claiming to use mostly treetops, limbs and wood waste to produce pellets. “We take giant, whole trees. We don’t care where they come from”, said the whistleblower. “The notion of sustainably managed forests is nonsense. We can’t get wood into the mills fast enough.”

Shady carbon accounting

In addition to the climate and ecological impact, large biomass-burning jurisdictions are taking advantage of a carbon accounting anomaly that exaggerates emissions reductions, highlights Peg Putt, former Australian politician and parliamentary leader of the Tasmanian Greens. This is because energy sector carbon accounts exclude the significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of burning wood. “The wood burning emissions impact the atmosphere regardless”, explains Putt. However, these emissions are hidden in “notoriously flawed” land sector carbon accounts, she added.

Furthermore, in some jurisdictions, subsidy regimes pay more for forest biomass energy than wind or solar power. “It is important to understand that government supports for biomass energy not only assist an emissive and ecologically damaging form of energy, they also undermine the capacity to support genuine low emissions energy such as wind and solar, or invest in energy efficiency”, she said.

Australia leads in rejecting forest biomass

While Australia takes the lead in rejecting forest biomass, other regions around the world are exploiting its dubious “renewable” classification as a smokescreen to actual climate progress. For example, the EU still defines woody biomass as a renewable energy source, meaning governments provide heavy subsidies to companies. Therefore, it is highly problematic that it makes up the majority – 60 per cent – of the EU’s reported renewable energy mix, writes Justin Catanoso in Mongabay. In comparison, Australia does not have a thriving biomass industry. “Australia’s reluctance to embrace woody biomass has led it to invest more heavily in zero-carbon renewable energy”, highlights Catanoso. 

The impact of Australia’s regulatory change is potentially most significant for the setback it might pose to the global biomass industry, said Catanoso. For example, the impact will hinder the multibillion-dollar wood pellet industry from gaining a foothold in Australia. This is while harvesting forest biomass in the US Southeast and British Columbia is rising to supply the increasing demand in the EU, UK and Asia. “But without the renewable designation, biomass development in Australia is all but dead in the water”, he added. 

Will Australia’s move set a precedent worldwide?

Political will, such as that demonstrated by Australia, has been in short supply elsewhere, said Putt. However, at least Australia has set a precedent in its decision. This move can now add pressure to biomass-burning governments, she said. It will also shine a spotlight on Enviva, Drax and other biomass businesses over their “appalling wood sourcing from old growth and biodiverse natural forests.”