Does Europe's renewable energy mostly come from burning wood? - Australian Associated Press
In this Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 file photo, sunlight falls through the trees in a forest in the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany. The sight of bare trees has stoked debate in Germany about the impact of climate change and what measures this heavily industrialized nation should be taking to adapt to and prevent global warming. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Does Europe’s renewable energy mostly come from burning wood?

George Driver March 2, 2021

AAP FactCheck Investigation: Does 60 per cent of Europe’s renewable power come from burning wood?

The Statement

“Take for example in Europe, where they claim that they’re using more and more renewable power, 60 per cent of the renewable power used in Europe is from woodchips. I mean, burning wood is going backwards.”

Gerard Rennick, Liberal Party senator, February 18, 2021.

The Analysis

Queensland senator Gerard Rennick has questioned Europe’s green credentials, claiming the majority of the region’s renewable power comes from burning woodchips.

The Liberal Party representative appeared on Sky News on February 18 advocating for the Australian government to repeal a ban on nuclear power. He said the reason he was “so against renewables” was that they had low energy density (video mark 6min 25sec).

“Take for example in Europe, where they claim that they’re using more and more renewable power, 60 per cent of the renewable power used in Europe is from woodchips,” Mr Rennick said. “I mean, burning wood is going backwards.”

AAP FactCheck examined the senator’s statement that 60 per cent of Europe’s renewable power comes from burning wood.

When asked for the basis of his claim, Mr Rennick cited an article on biomass energy published in The Guardian in January.

The article, which included criticism of an increasing reliance on forestry products for energy, said: “Biomass, of which wood from forests is the main source, now makes up almost 60 per cent of the EU’s (European Union’s) renewable energy supply, more than solar and wind combined.”

Mr Rennick did not respond to further questions from AAP FactCheck on what he meant by “renewable power” in his statement. For that reason, this fact check will look at both total energy and electricity generation.

Wood pellets are burned for heat and to generate electricity in Europe as part of bioenergy, or biomass energy, schemes, which include other sources such as agricultural byproducts and urban waste.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), wood-based biomass energy is mostly the by-product of forestry, drawing on material like thinnings, diseased or low-quality trees, tops and branches, sawdust and bark.

An EU report from October 2020 said around 60 per cent of all renewable energy in 2018 came from bioenergy (page 3).

However, solid biofuels accounted for only around 68.4 per cent of the bioenergy total, while forestry made up approximately 91 per cent of solid biofuels. Other major biofuel sources include liquid biofuels, biogas and the renewable share of municipal waste.

Based on the report’s figures, forestry produced 37 per cent of the bloc’s renewable energy that year.

The Guardian article cited by Mr Rennick used figures from an older European Commission report, which said bioenergy accounted for around 59.2 per cent of the EU’s renewable energy in 2016 based on gross final consumption (figure 1, page 2).

Of this, 60.7 per cent came from wood products, meaning around 36 per cent of the EU’s total renewable energy came from forestry and wood waste that year.

Detailed figures from Eurostat show renewable energy accounted for 34 per cent of electricity generation in the EU in 2019. Solid biofuels such as wood were responsible for 9.6 per cent of the renewable electricity total.

Data from the IEA, covering both EU and non-EU states, shows solid biofuels accounted for less than seven per cent of renewable electricity generation in Europe during 2018.

The IEA’s figures also showed biofuels and waste produced around 58 per cent of Europe’s total renewable energy supply, however they did not say what proportion came from burning wood material. Based on the EU data, forestry products are likely to represent less than two-thirds of the total biofuel and waste amount.

University of the Sunshine Coast Forest Industries Research Centre director Mark Brown, an expert on biomass energy, said data from the two sources showed Mr Rennick’s claim was incorrect.

He said the suggestion that burning woodchips was “going backwards” was also wrong and ignored a large body of research showing the benefits of biomass energy.

Prof Brown said burning wood pellets was considered renewable due to the carbon sequestration in sustainably managed forests and because the fuel was mainly derived from forestry waste.

“It is about sourcing the carbon for energy from within the biogenic cycle rather than adding new carbon to the biogenic cycle when you extract fossil fuels and use them to produce energy,” he said.

Prof Brown added that heating systems used to burn wood pellets in Europe were generally centralised and highly efficient, rather than inefficient individual wood fireplaces or stoves.

However, he said there was debate about how forests are best managed to produce wood-based bioenergy to reduce emissions and how the level of carbon sequestration involved was calculated.

There have been a number of media reports (see examples here, here and here) and experts highlighting issues with Europe’s reliance on wood-based bioenergy.

A recent report from the EU’s Joint Research Centre said bioenergy sustainability was a “wicked problem” characterised by “uncertainty about consequences, diverse and multiple engaged interests, conflicting knowledge claims and high stakes” (page 6).

It said there was a discrepancy between the reported sources of wood-based bioenergy and the quantity used in energy generation, with 20 per cent more biomass burned than officially produced (page 7).

A 2018 report by London think tank Chatham House said if wood-based bioenergy resulted in more forest harvesting then this “will in almost all circumstances increase net carbon emissions very substantially compared to using fossil fuels”.

However, a 2019 EU report said bioenergy could play a key role in meeting the EU’s renewable energy targets if the sector was managed sustainably.

The IEA said while biomass emits more CO2 than coal per unit of energy, it is considered renewable as it does not increase the total emissions in the atmosphere if sustainably managed (pages 1 and 2). This was because the emissions from burning biofuels were reabsorbed in the forestry cycle. By contrast, emissions from burning fossil fuels were not considered part of the natural carbon cycle and were a net contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

A forest on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany.
 Forestry products are likely to represent less than two-thirds of Europe’s total biofuel, data shows 

The Verdict

AAP FactCheck found Mr Rennick’s statement that 60 per cent of Europe’s renewable power comes from burning wood to be somewhat false.

While a significant proportion of the region’s total renewable energy comes from wood, the figure was only around 37 per cent of the EU’s total energy supply in 2018. If Mr Rennick was referring to renewable electricity generation in his reference to “power”, the share is much lower again – at less than 10 per cent.

Somewhat False – The claim has a problem or inaccuracy but it does contain a significant element or elements of truth.

* Editor’s note: AAP FactCheck has expanded its ability to fact-check environmental issues with the support of the Australian Conservation Foundation. AAP FactCheck retains full editorial independence in this project and continues to apply the rigorous standards required for accredited members of the International Fact-Checking Network.