EU Science Hub

Striking the right balance: Facilitating sustainable biomass use in domestic heating in the Danube region

Burning bio pellets fuel in a boiler
Burning bio pellets fuel in a boiler
Apr 12 2019

Biomass represents an important opportunity to reduce CO2 emissions in sectors where fuel switching is the most complicated.

However, it is crucial to encourage the sustainable use of biomass only in order to avoid any potentially negative impact on the environment.

Climate change is one of the most important challenges humanity is facing in the 21st century, its devastating consequences are already felt all over the world, from the melting of glaciers over heatwaves and the desertification of whole regions to ever more frequent extreme weather events.

A drastically increased use of energy from renewable sources is an important element for the decarbonisation of our economy and crucial to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Biomass is a renewable alternative to fossil fuels, but as a recently published JRC report has demonstrated, finding an equilibrium between the benefits and the possible negative impacts the increased use of biomass might have on the environment, is vital.

Biomass can contribute to the decarbonisation of heating but also to air pollution

The EU Strategy for the Danube Region was launched in 2011.

It brings together the 9 EU and 5 non-EU countries along the Danube river by identifying core pillars central to the promotion of the region’s prosperity and development.

In addition, the policy framework of the EU offers several means of controlling emissions, such as legislation which promotes technological improvement and efficiency, including the Ecodesign and Energy labelling directives.  

The directives on energy efficiency in buildings and the smart grid concept additionally provide measures to place controls on energy demand.

The energy and climate legislative framework of the EU, fully adopted by the 14 Danube region countries, is encouraging the increased use of biomass, and the majority of the EUSDR countries have incentivised its use as a source of energy.

The issue of biomass use in domestic heating lies at the intersection of two of the EUSDR core pillars: expansion in the use of sustainable energy and the protection of the environment.

Biomass provides a renewable energy source which contributes to the decarbonisation of heating particularly at domestic level.

However, it also has the potential to harm the environment in relation to the release of air pollutants and the overexploitation of resources.

Biomass related CO2 emissions down by 40%, fine particle pollution up by over 60%

Data from the JRC's Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) reflects that although carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have decreased by 40% since 1990 in the Danube Region's "energy in buildings" sector, the emissions of biomass related fine respirable particle pollution have increased by over 60% in the same sector and time period. 

Such trends suggest that measures focused on decarbonisation must be carefully controlled.

The use of biomass as an energy source in domestic heating could be considered carbon-neutral on the basis that the carbon dioxide emitted during combustion is recaptured by new biomass growth, as part of the natural biosphere carbon cycle, and does not lead to any increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

However, when the entirety of the biomass production chain is considered, there are other emissions such as those originating from the transport and processing of the raw material, and therefore detailed case-by-case assessment should be carried out wherever possible.

While decarbonisation is a necessary measure to reduce the impact of climate change, environmental pressures produced from domestic scale biomass – such as wood-fuelled heating systems in homes - must also be considered.

These are not limited solely to air quality but extend to issues such as soil fertility, ecosystem preservation, water quality and availability and biodiversity preservation.

Policies needed to manage sustainable use of biomass

The JRC Report examines the different aspects of this issue, drawing from data submitted by the 14 Danube region countries in their National renewable energy action plans (NREAP) and periodic progress reports detailing their progress in deploying renewable energy.

In compiling the report, JRC scientists analysed country specific data in addition to data concerning domestic biomass combustion technologies.

They also looked at the main financial and market tools used by the Danube countries to practically support domestic biomass heat production.

The report reveals that while solid biomass is currently and will certainly remain a pivotal renewable energy source, the potential for harmful environmental impact necessitates policies be created in order to manage its use.

The most immediate impact of biomass-fed heat production is the emission of soot.

Soot produced by biomass burning in a domestic context contains a variety of pollutants which pose harm not only to the ecosystem but also to human health.

Available policy tools to enable biomass use

The crucial issue in relation to biomass domestic heating is striving for a sense of equilibrium between the opportunities for development and the potential environmental impact.

This can be achieved through enacting policies and strategies as well as identifying tools, practices and solutions which create a balance between the two sides of biomass use.

Furthermore, the development of renewable heat sources not based on combustion processes, such as solar heating and geothermal energy, and the incorporation of these sources into the traditional setting of stoves and boilers can be another way to manage the demand for bioheat.

Additionally, concepts like bioeconomy and circular economy offer a framework in which the suitable management and optimisation of biomass use can be easily placed and understood.

The EUSDR identified energy to be a vital component in the progress towards a more sustainable and prosperous future for the Danube region.

Biomass burning offers the prospect of a renewable energy source that aids decarbonisation but also poses the risk of harm to both the environment and to human health.

Therefore, governance is needed in order to optimise the technologies used and to ensure the proper management of biomass resources.

SOFAIR European Air Quality Conference 2019

The report was presented by the JRC at the SOFAIR European Air Quality Conference 2019 in Sofia on 12 April.

SOFAIR gathers the most important stakeholders in the common efforts to solve air pollution in Europe and is organised by the Sofia Municipality in partnership with the JRC and with the support of EUROCITIES.