Despite the fact that 91% of the EU’s territory is rural, only 56% of its population is living in these areas. With economic development, people tend to leave rural areas for cities that offer better employment opportunities and a higher income. Together with economic activities, services such as health and education are becoming scarce pushing even more residents to desert rural areas, thereby creating some worrying downward cycles. On the other hand, cities are growing and so are the trafic problems, real estate prices, pollution levels and the energy and sanitation systems are having trouble adapting to this growth.
Labour in rural areas is decreasing in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors. However, the primary sector is the most heavily impacted. As an example, the labour force in EU farms has decreased by almost 2 million people between 2007 and 2010. The importance of the primary sector for employment differs significantly between member states, depending on the extent to which the primary sector has been modernized and the availability of alternative income options. Rural migration is a real issue that most countries have to face when progressing in their development curve. Rural areas have many assets and to avoid people moving mostly for better employment opportunities, innovative economic activities should be brought to these areas. Bioenergy can be part of the solution!
How can bioenergy add value and help revitalize rural areas?
To meet the increasing demand for bioenergy, economic activities and jobs are created in rural areas. Bioenergy is boosting economic activity in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors, as described below. In the primary sector, activities linked to the mobilisation of biomass are generated, such as forest harvesting, harvest residue collection, small diameter wood (energy wood thinnings) harvesting, farming, breeding, etc. In the secondary sector, associated to the use of biomass, a large range of activities are taking place and creating jobs like chipping, operation of biomass power and district heating installations, operation of pellet mills, advanced biofuels factories, storage platforms, and transport. This also includes the manufacture of stoves and boilers, tractors, IT devices, etc. The tertiary sector covers all the services related to the support of biomass use and supply: forest planning, installation of boilers, banks, insurance (against pest and re), agronomic or accountant consultancy, research, mechanical workshop, raw material trading, food wholesale, public bodies, certification bodies, etc.
Bioenergy generates investment in forest management and new forest plantations
If doubts remain about the positive impact of bioenergy on the environment, one should note that the European Commission, in its State of Play on the sustainability of solid and gaseous biomass used for electricity, heating and cooling in the EU, rightly highlights that: In fact, bioenergy relies on sustainable forest management and does not mean over-exploitation of the forests or the use of high value round wood. A large amount of forest biomass is produced from material that would otherwise be useless, such as sawmill residues, forest thinnings and forest wastes (tops, branches, and low quality logs left over after higher quality logs have been removed). Now, instead of being wasted, forest biomass is used to replace fossil fuels and, in doing so, delivers socio-economic benefits in rural communities. In addition, biomass improves forest management, which results in carbon credit. Wood demand generates investments in forest management and new forest plantations. Without any wood demand and income for forest owners, forests would be neglected, leading to smaller growth due to maturation (older forests capture less and less CO2) and higher risks of forest res. Forest management and thinnings are vital for forest health, productivity, as well as re and pest prevention. Sustainable biomass can and must make a meaningful contribution, if society is to achieve its ambitions on renewable energy and climate change mitigation. Choosing fossil fuels causes irreversible damage to our climate, and limits society’s opportunities to switch to renewable energy. Leaving unmanaged forests, however, is a poor option as it would deepen the carbon debt created by prolonged burning of fossil fuels and would not develop local sustainable industries and jobs.