Pushback in the Netherlands

In early July, environmentalists met with some success In their advocacy against biomass. The independent Dutch Social Economic Council (SER), made up of business leaders, academics and NGOs, recommended to the Dutch Parliament that it phase out the use of biomass for electricity and heat generation. The Netherlands gets 61% of its renewable energy from biomass.

SER recommended that biomass still be used, though in smaller quantities for the production of innovative chemicals, bio-plastics and bio-concrete, instead of using fossil fuels for those limited purposes. The Dutch government will decide this fall how, or if, to incorporate these recommendations into its climate change mitigations laws. Those laws call for carbon emission reductions of 49% by 2030.

Almuth Ernsting, with Biofuels Watch in Scotland, has been lobbying against biomass in the EU for 10 years. She called the SER solution an imperfect compromise, but told Mongabay, “If the Dutch government accepts the recommendations and implements them, that would send a really strong signal to other EU nations [on biomass]. The Netherlands is one of the big players within the EU and internationally. If [the SER report] gets translated into meaningful policy change, it will make a huge difference.”

That difference could save forests in Eastern Europe, according to Martin Luiga of Forest Aid Estonia: “Logging rates in Estonia are far too high to protect the climate. Most of our endangered species are forest-dwelling species, and there is widespread public concern about the intensity of logging. Nonetheless, the prevailing political mood is to further increase the harvesting volumes. Reducing demand for pellets would greatly help the situation and thereby protect Estonian forests.”

A RED review?

Rita Frost, campaigns director with the North Carolina, USA-based Dogwood Alliance, a forest-protection NGO, has likewise focused her efforts on shifting the Netherlands position on biomass. That includes targeting the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which states that burning wood pellets is carbon neutral and a legitimate way to reduce carbon emissions.

“It goes back to the problem with the RED and the belief that there is [such a thing as] sustainable biomass,” Frost told Mongabay. “The industry has used that argument effectively in Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, which have intensive forestry management practices. And when [those governments] look at the [wood pellet] supply coming from the U.S., they figure it must be okay. But with our work, and the work in the Baltic states, the picture is much different on the ground, where we have documented the extensive loss of forests.”

Environmental advocates have won some smaller victories in the past few years — prevailing on the UK to cap subsidies and expansion of its massive Drax pellet burning plant, while also seeing the EU put some new biomass plants on hold.

Also, as a matter of UK policy, subsidies to Drax for burning biomass, having started in 2007, are now set to end in 2027 unless the company successfully lobbies for an extension. Fourteen EU countries presently provide subsidies for bioenergy, but it’s unclear how long such taxpayer support will remain in place, according to research by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an NGO.

The United Kingdom’s Drax power station, one of the world’s largest users of woody biomass for energy production. The uncounted carbon from wood pellets burned at Drax flows into the atmosphere, adding to climate change. Photo credit: DECCgovuk on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND.
When the biomass industry hypes wood pellets, people often imagine the product being consumed in small household wood burning pellet stoves. The reality is quite different and large-scale, with industrial burning of wood pellets to make electricity, as seen here at the UK’s Drax biomass plant. Photo credit: nican45 on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA.

Ultimately, biomass critics acknowledge that real change depends on the EU revising its Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and closing the carbon neutrality loophole. At the UN climate summit in Madrid last December, Franz Timmermans, executive vice president of the EU and a Dutch politician, told Mongabay that RED’s current biomass position needed to be reviewed because of recent scientific studies, perhaps in 2021.

“The issue of biofuels needs to be looked at very carefully,” Timmermans said in Madrid. “We have to make sure that what we do with biofuels is sustainable and does not do more harm than that it does good.”

Almuth with BioFuels Watch said she was encouraged by Timmermans’ comment, but stressed that much more work on the part of scientists and environmentalists is needed to shift public opinion and create political will in the face of a biomass industry steadily growing larger, wealthier and more influential.

“Any legal change to the RED would require the support of the majority of [EU] member states, or 15 or 27 countries,” Almuth said. “It will take a lot of awareness raising and campaigning to make that possible. That’s why the upcoming debate and political arguments coming this fall in the Netherlands over biomass and carbon neutrality is so important.

Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor to Mongabay, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso

Banner image: Enviva’s Sampson County North Carolina forest biomass facility. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

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