Forests Dialogue: Helping to Chart a Path Forward for Sustainable Wood Energy

At a time when efforts to curb climate change and enhance renewable energy use have grown in both attention and urgency, it is frequently solar, wind, and hydroelectric sources that come to mind. Crafting a path toward decarbonization and achieving climate change and sustainability targets, however, will most assuredly require heightened efforts around sustainable forest management and sustainable woody biomass energy.

According to the World Bank’s 2015 Global Tracking Framework, 87 percent of the world’s renewable energy (and 77 percent of the European Union’s) comes from wood. Moreover, an estimated one-half of the world’s population rely on fuelwood and charcoal to meet their daily energy needs and woody biomass is increasingly being used on an industrial scale for heat and power, especially in Europe, as countries are seeking to bolster the contributions of renewable sources in the energy mix. For example, the European Commission is currently in the process of revising its renewable energy directive (REDII) for the period 2020-2030 to include more wood energy. This revision will lead to intense discussions by all stakeholders before the directive is finalized and the European Parliament votes on it this spring.
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To catalyze and proactively support the discussion, The Forests Dialogue (TFD), a Yale-based organization, convened a multi-stakeholder dialogue in Montpelier, France on the topic of sustainable woody biomass for energy last year. The “scoping dialogue” event — organized in partnership with the Sustainable Biomass Partnership (SBP), the Program on Forests (PROFOR), and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) — brought together stakeholders and experts from business, civil society, government, research, and development institutions with the common aim of addressing the challenges and opportunities associated with expanding wood energy use.

Since its creation in 2000, The Forests Dialogue has brought together more than 2,500 diverse leaders to work through conflict between stakeholders related to sustainable forest management and conservation. TFD seeks to achieve substantive outcomes by leading an ongoing, international multi-stakeholder dialogue platform and process focused on developing mutual trust, a shared understanding, and collaborative solutions to forest related challenges.

The Montpellier meeting on sustainable wood energy brought together 37 participants from more than a dozen countries and sought to forge a path forward for stakeholders to make meaningful progress towards a common and compelling vision for a sustainable wood energy future.

Identifying Key Issues around Sustainable Wood Energy: 

Six distinct stakeholder groups including social and environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), forest managers and regulators, development institutions, researchers, and energy producers all participated in the dialogue. Throughout the course of the discussions, these participants identified four key wood energy issue areas around: 1) greenhouse gas neutrality and carbon balance, 2) forests and land use, 3) resource efficiency and cascading use, and 4) regulatory frameworks.

Sustainable Wood Energy in Industrial Use Contexts:

Upon delving deeper into these key issue areas, participants uncovered linked, but double-tracked agendas in industrial use (large-scale wood pellet development for electricity production) and traditional use (small-scale charcoal and fuelwood) contexts. In terms of industrial use, discussions focused on wood energy linked to sustainable forest management and climate objectives with a large focus on the North American/European wood pellet supply chain. While some participants emphasized the role of wood-based power production as a meaningful way to decarbonize the economy, others expressed concern over the scale and speed of development supported through subsidies without clear evidence that forest impacts can be managed and that wood energy positively contributes to climate mitigation. Scaling-up was an additional concern and point of contention.
Participants agreed that generating sufficient political will to focus on wood energy as a component of a given country’s development pathway and as a climate priority are key challenges moving forward.
Despite the challenges of scaling up, several pathways to successfully achieving sustainable industrial scale wood energy were discussed. Strategies highlighted included resource mobilization, adaptive forest management, utilization of alternative fibers and non-merchantable wood, and selecting for optimal tree species. Participants additionally stressed that sustainability science and evidence-based research should play a larger role in defining wood energy boundaries moving forward and that subsidies and regulations ought to be harmonized between the energy and forestry sectors. Carbon accounting — and an agreement on an objective, third-party assessment applying internationally endorsed protocols — was also determined as an issue that would play an important role in assessing the sustainability of wood energy supply chains. Thematically, some participants suggested that future dialogues explore the sustainability of the energy system on the whole and perspectives on carbon accounting. Ultimately, dialogue stakeholders agreed that taking a “case study” approach to the wood pellet supply chain moving forward could be useful in fostering enhanced understanding through dialogue.

Sustainable Wood Energy in Traditional Use Contexts: 

Within the context of traditional use, participants highlighted the example of charcoal use in urban, commercial, and industrial applications in Sub-Sahara Africa as a potential driver for local economic development. Some stakeholders expressed the substantial social and economic benefits that facilitating the modernization of production, processing, distribution, and consumption cycles could have. In contrast to these opportunities, other participants articulated concern over how some governments seemingly ignore the potential and/or express an explicit desire to move away from wood energy, regarding itas a regressive and inefficient form of energy that can be seen from afar as an image that embodies poverty and lack of development. As such, participants agreed that generating sufficient political will to focus on wood energy as a component of a given country’s development pathway and as a climate priority are key challenges moving forward. Further dialogue will be key in providing support and catalyzing action when it comes to mobilizing the public and private resources needed to modernize the traditional use sector.

Ultimately, for traditional use contexts, participants expressed that crafting a modern wood energy sector will require changes in political attitudes, public policies, resource governance (including clarification of tenure rights) and the mobilization of resources for capacity-building and investments across production, processing, distribution, and consumption. Looking forward, participants suggested that future dialogues explore issues of obtaining long term tenure security over land and resources, adapting forest sector regulation and formalizing the supply chain and markets, providing incentives for efficiency improvements, and/or enabling locally-controlled forestry.
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Issues Transcending End-Use and Geo-Political Divides:

Beyond these two distinct contexts, participants of the dialogue emphasized how several of the key issues transcended these end-use and geopolitical divides. These included: carbon accounting and life cycle assessment methodologies, the application of the precautionary approach, the cascading use of wood resources, and the use of caps to regulate supply and demand. Moving forward, participants agreed that further dialogue and attention ought to be paid to these issues with broad stakeholder engagement and well-structured objectives so as to narrow differences between groups, bridge divides, and develop consensus. In particular, U.S. supply chain actors expressed a strong interest in engaging in dialogue with its NGO critics so as to narrow or resolve and better understand differences on four key issues including: 1) forest management versus risk-based certification; 2) what kind of wood is appropriate for bioenergy; 3) appropriate carbon emissions accounting; and 4) the scale of wood energy development and whether or not this scale is responsible for forest conversion or degradation.
Conclusions and a collective, dialogue-based path forward:  
At a time when many countries aim at balancing a critical triangle of ensuring energy security, combatting energy poverty, and accelerating the use of renewable energy targets, the Montpellier dialogue sheds some light on the road ahead.
The two days of discussion in Montpellier were insightful and timely. Looking forward, similarly structured dialogue with clear objectives and outcomes focused on current and future wood energy challenges and opportunities is needed and can play an important role in reducing conflict between stakeholders in the sector. Upcoming discussions could choose to explore on two parallel and linked tracks: 1) traditional and commercial use and 2) industrial and utility use. Field visits and illustrative on-the-ground case studies that focus on the opportunities, challenges, and contested assumptions around the four key issue areas identified by this initial scoping dialogue have the potential to provide important and constructive perspective. Future dialogues might also be strengthened by involving experts on key topics (such as carbon accounting). It will be additionally important to involve and engage critically-minded stakeholders in any follow-up dialogue (including government officials in the traditional use context and activist NGOs and policy makers in the industrial use context).

Ultimately, this Scoping Dialogue on Sustainable Woody Biomass for Energy and more broadly TFD’s Initiative on Sustainable Wood Energy provides a unique window into some of the key issue areas, information gaps, and possible sustainable solutions. At a time when many countries aim at balancing a critical triangle of ensuring energy security, combatting energy poverty, and accelerating the use of renewable energy targets, the Montpellier dialogue sheds some light on the road ahead. This dialogue and the work of TFD and its partners suggests that despite stakeholder differences, there is an inclusive dialogue-based path forward for making meaningful progress towards a collective sustainable wood energy future as an integrated pillar of a global renewable energy future.
More comprehensive information on this dialogue can be found by accessing the Co-Chair’s Summary document

Learn more about The Forests Dialogue
PUBLISHED: June 29, 2017
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.