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Supply of woody biomass for energy from privately owned forests in Europe overestimated

03.06.2014

The European Commission expects the use of biomass for energy in the EU to increase significantly to meet a legally binding target of at least 20% of the EU’s total energy use from renewable sources in 2020. In response to the increased demand, the EU member states have estimated the direct supply of biomass from their forests to increase by 45% on a volume basis between 2006 and 2020. A new study, led by Kristina Blennow from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), shows for the first time that European private forest owners are not as ready to increase the supply of woody biomass for energy as assumed. 

Fifty percent of the forest area in Europe is privately owned. The private forest owners’ attitudes towards supplying biomass for energy so that the targets can be met and the related economic policy instruments are extremely important. Considering the beliefs and desires of the land owners in designing land-use policies is crucial for their effectiveness. This study shows that the future supply of woody biomass for energy from privately owned forests in Europe and the effectiveness of economic policy instruments to mobilise woody biomass from them have been overestimated.

An international team of scientists from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the European Forest Institute, the Technical University of Lisbon (Portugal), and the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL base their report on survey data from 800 private forest owners operating across Europe. The data shows that although the forest owners generally asserted strong belief in a persistent and strong demand for woody biomass for energy use, their readiness to change the management objective to woody biomass for energy in forest stands currently managed for stemwood is low, even if it would lead to higher financial return. This shows that the attitudes of those who make decisions at the local level strongly influence the supply of woody biomass for energy from the European forest sector. 

Only one respondent in ten, representing 12% of the forest area, reported a weakly positive or strongly positive attitude to convert to producing woody biomass for energy at a profit in forest stands currently managed for stemwood. Almost two respondents out of three held a strongly negative attitude towards making the change. Assuming that respondents with a weakly positive and strongly positive attitude towards making the change from stemwood to biomass for energy will indeed make the change and that the respondents represent the European private forest owners in general, only 12% of the privately owned forest land will be available for providing stemwood for energy generation. Hence, a conservative estimate of the harvest level of stemwood for energy in privately owned forests in Europe is 12% of the maximum. This can be compared with the 94.6% assumed in influential simulation studies.

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Photo: Lukasvideo / fotolia.com

The results are based on responses to a questionnaire among private forest owners in Sweden, Germany and Portugal. These countries represent a north-south gradient across Europe and cover a wide range of bio-climatic conditions as well as economic-social-political structures. In addition to size of forest holding, the survey addressed three main questions: how strongly do forest owners believe in a persistent demand for woody biomass for energy, how likely is it that forest owners continue to manage the forest for stemwood or convert to producing bioenergy for energy generation, if it can be made at profit, and how willing are the forest owners to convert land used for pasture, agriculture and other purposes to forest, and convert forest land to land for cultivation of energy crops?

The findings of the team of researchers have strong implications for meeting the forest biomass share of the legally binding 2020 target for renewable energy in the EU and for the design of effective renewable energy policy.

The full study was published online in “Biomass and Bioenergy” in May 2014.

Full reference to the article: Blennow, K., Persson, E., Lindner, M., Faias, S.P. and Hanewinkel, M. 2014. Forest owner motivations and attitudes towards supplying biomass for energy in Europe, Biomass and Bioenergy, 67: 223–230.

The study was partly supported by the EU project MOTIVE (Models for adaptive forest management, grant 226544). Further information on the project can be found at motive-project.net

Further information: Kristina Blennow, firstname.lastname@slu.se