Site icon Conservation news

Burning wood: Can the EU see the forest for the trees?

  • A new report argues that forests need more protection from the biomass industry in the EU, which is deforesting the American south to produce energy abroad.
  • EU policy considers burning woody biomass as carbon neutral, even though other countries and many scientists say that doesn’t add up.
  • Demand for wood pellets in the EU is growing: last year, the UK imported 8 million tons. This demand is leading to high quality wood – not waste – being burned.

Somewhere in the swampy forests of the southeastern United States, a cypress tree is felled. Its lifelong work of absorbing and storing carbon is over. It will no longer hold the ground firm against erosion, or shelter endangered wading birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Instead, the tree is driven to a factory to be processed into wood pellets, before being shipped thousands of miles across the ocean to Europe. There, a factory burns it as fuel, emitting more carbon dioxide than coal per megawatt of electricity produced, according to a report by Chatham House.

Before 2009, almost no trees made this journey across the Atlantic. But in that year the EU set a renewable energy goal: reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. To do this, they turned, in part, to burning forests from the southeast US.

In 2013, the UK imported 3.5 million tons of wood pellets from the United States. Last year, they imported over 8 million tons. Currently, over 40 percent of the EU’s renewable energy is sourced from woody biomass, much of which comes from overseas sources like the southern US.

“We’re rapidly degrading our best defense against climate change, and additional demand for biomass is making the problem worse,” said Adam Macon, director of the Dogwood Alliance’s Our Forests Aren’t Fuel campaign to protect southern US forests.

Wood pellet exporters are cutting down cypress forests like this one in the southern US to meet Europe’s exploding biomass demand. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler, Mongabay.

Wood pellets have proven a popular way to meet renewable energy targets because energy from trees is currently considered carbon neutral by EU energy policy. According to many experts, it shouldn’t be Emissions estimates for the entire life cycle (from chopping to processing to shipping to burning) vary, but biomass generally comes out as a higher emitter than coal and gas in practice. So why is it considered to be carbon neutral in the EU?

The discrepancy between emissions according to EU policy and emissions in reality can be traced to a loophole in EU energy policy under the Kyoto Protocol. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change recommends that emissions from biomass should only be reported in the land-use sector to avoid double counting in the energy sector. While this is useful for reporting, it can lead to some troubling gaps in who is ultimately held accountable for biomass carbon emissions. When the EU is importing trees from other countries, the carbon emissions are counted in that country’s land use sector rather than the EU energy sector. The only emissions that the EU accounts for, therefore, are the emissions of shipping the wood pellets across the ocean. The carbon impact of cutting the tree down, losing the carbon-fixing power of the tree, and burning the wood in power plants is not counted in the EU energy sector at all.

Once in the EU, woody biomass falls under EU energy policy. This policy currently assumes that any carbon emitted when a tree is burned will be taken back out of the atmosphere when a new tree is planted to replace it. The ability to replace a burned tree with a new tree supposedly makes trees the perfect renewable resource. Unfortunately, current EU policy does not actually require companies to replant any trees. Even if it did, it would take years for a young tree to start fixing the same amount of carbon as the adult tree it was meant to replace. What current EU policy does do, however, is encourage massive government subsidies for power companies to switch to wood as an energy source.

Many scientists and NGOs are concerned by this trend, arguing that the EU should not be relying so heavily on woody biomass to meet its renewable energy goals.

While wood pellets burned for energy ideally come from woody byproducts that would otherwise go to waste, the huge demand in Europe has led to an increase in logging solely to meet EU energy targets. This means that forests, some of the world’s most important carbon sinks, are being felled in the name of green energy.

Enviva is the biggest wood pellet exporter in the United States. Its facility in Ahoskie, North Carolina sources from forests that WWF has deemed critical or endangered. Photo credit: Dogwood Alliance.

A report by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), delivered to the European Commission in December, recommended policy changes that could help minimize the carbon cost of bioenergy. To ensure that a higher percentage of wood pellets are actually coming from byproducts and low value wood, coauthors Nicklas Forsell and Anu Korosuo suggest that protections for specific forests, as well as emission reduction targets, be built into the EU’s updated Sustainability Policy.

The IIASA report acknowledges what EU bioenergy policies currently do not: high quality wood is being burned for fuel, and this trend will continue unless current policies are changed. According to the report, under the current Renewable Energy Directive, there will be a “considerable increase over time in the use of imported pellets.”

The report recommends that forests be assessed for their biodiversity and importance for carbon storage. These high conservation value forests should then be protected from all uses, not simply use for European bioenergy, to ensure the biggest reduction in carbon emissions. Forsell and Korosuo also recommend a cap on the amount of high quality wood that can be burned for fuel.

Many believe that these measures do not go far enough to protect forests currently threatened by the EU bioenergy boom. Even the protections that are recommended are missing a key detail: how they would be implemented and enforced. Sini Eräjää, EU Bioenergy Policy Officer for BirdLife International, is skeptical about whether the report’s theoretical recommendations could ever be put into practice.

The benefits of blanket protections to forests “shouldn’t be news to anyone,” she said. EU policies, however, “cannot apply such safeguards to the global wood markets … the recommendations are thus not very applicable for the current EU policy discussions.”

Unfortunately, while these recommendations might be difficult to put into practice, the report’s findings demonstrate that the EU’s impact on forests is all too real. Forsell and Korosuo confirm that Europe will continue to put increasing strain on forests both at home and abroad unless policies change.

“These are shocking outcomes for a policy that’s supposed to mitigate climate change,” said Eräjää.

Macon and Eräjää believe that a better solution would be for bioenergy to play a much more limited role in the revised EU Renewable Energy Directive.

“We should limit the energy demand [for woody biomass] to residues and wastes,” said Eräjää.

Both agree that the focus of the EU’s renewable energy goals should instead be more sustainable alternatives like wind and solar.

“If we are going to address and mitigate the global impacts of climate change,” said Macon, “we must include forest protection in addition to a transition towards true renewable energy.”


Forsell N, Korosuo A, Lauri P, Havlík P, et al. (2016). Follow-up study on impacts on resource Efficiency of future EU demand for bioenergy (ReceBio follow-up). Final report. Project: ENV.F.1/ETU/2015/Ares(2015)5117224. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Exit mobile version