Cascade use of biomass – now we are talking

It is widely recognised that biomass from sustainable forestry has a significant contribution to make toward the EU’s 2030 climate and energy goals. The concept of the "cascade use principle" for biomass has been kicked around for several years now with little formal effort to define it as a working definition at EU policy level.

The concept generally denotes a promotion of higher grade applications over lower grade applications leading to a final product use for energy purposes. It has been mentioned in several EU policy contexts, including resource efficiency raw material scarcity and the EU Forest Strategy, but for one reason or another discussion of its merits as a horizontal policy has never really gained the traction it deserves. This appears to be changing however.

Since its specific mention in the European Parliament’s resolution of 9 July on the Circular Economy, both representatives of European forest owners and NGOs have issued policy briefs on the subject. The European Parliament’s Circular Economy Report states in relation to biomass: … the EU’s use of resources needs to be sustainable and … this requires, inter alia, an absolute reduction in the consumption of resources to sustainable levels, … strict application of the waste hierarchy, implementation of a cascading use of resources, notably in the use of biomass,… CEPF, Copa Cogeca and ELO, representing collectively European forest owners, on 6 July issued a joint statement questioning “the benefits and practicability of the cascade use principle”.

While pointing out that the concept has not been clearly defined, and while offering support for the high value use of wood, they oppose valuing and using wood in a hierarchical manner. More recently, BirdLife Europe and the European Environmental Bureau have entered the discussion issuing a policy brief specifically on the cascading use of biomass.

Responding to the forest owners, they argue that nothing in the cascade use principle implies restrictions on forest owners selling their products. It also notes that several EU policies are already in place that are consistent with a cascade use of biomass and that other EU policies could and should be better aligned in this direction.

Any discussion of the cascade use principle as being mandatory is a deflection of the real issue and misses the policy opportunity. There are at least four compelling reasons why the cascade use of biomass requires closer policy consideration at EU level:

  1. Jobs and growth – cascading (bio)products produces more skilled jobs (in science and sales) than immediate use for (bio)energy;
  2. Resource efficiency – cascading use promotes multiple raw material uses thereby reducing imports;
  3. Circular economy – cascading preserves higher value materials extending product loops;
  4. Bio-economy – Europe will not have a bio-economy without bio-products, and bio-products require a level playing field with bio-fuels.

At a time when biomass is counting for more than 50% of Europe’s renewables target and woody biomass imports are on a steep rise from use in power generation, Europe needs to examine how this critical, sustainable and domestic resource can best be harnessed for the ambitions of a low carbon economy.

Such considerations are important because they can help us avoid policy catastrophes such as the recent ILUC directive wherein biomass feedstocks critical to the pine chemicals industry have been incentivized for energy use. As the European Parliament’s report acknowledges, moving to a circular economy will require systemic change decoupling growth from economic consumption. The cascade use principle for biomass is important to this policy discussion.

Now is the time. The Commission must take up the mantle and address this issue in its upcoming circular economy package to move the discussion forward.

*This Op-ed was first published on ENDS Waste and Bioenergy on 5 Oct 2015.


Nathan Knight

Senior Advisor

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