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Dutch to limit forest biomass subsidies, possibly signaling EU sea change

  • The Dutch Parliament in February voted to disallow the issuing of new subsidies for 50 planned forest biomass-for-heat plants, a small, but potentially key victory for researchers and activists who say that the burning of forests to make energy is not only not carbon neutral, but is dirtier than burning coal and bad climate policy.
  • With public opinion opposing forest biomass as a climate solution now growing in the EU, the decision by the Netherlands could be a bellwether. In June, the EU will review its Renewable Energy Directive (RED II), whether to continue allowing biomass subsidies and not counting biomass emissions at the smokestack.
  • Currently, forest biomass burning to make energy is ruled as carbon neutral in the EU, even though a growing body of scientific evidence has shown that it takes many decades until forests regrow for carbon neutrality to be achieved.
  • The forestry industry, which continues to see increasing demand for wood pellets, argues that biomass burning is environmentally sustainable and a viable carbon cutting solution compared to coal.

In a speedbump for the accelerating biomass industry in the European Union, the Dutch Parliament on February 25 voted to stop issuing new subsidies for 50 planned forest biomass-for-heat plants, a rare industry setback cheered by the country’s biomass opponents and shrugged off by the industry itself.

The vote came with a caveat: current annual subsidies of €578.5 million ($698 million) will remain in place for existing Dutch biomass plants — some 200 of which produce heat, while four power plants are co-fired with coal and biomass. The plants primarily burn wood pellets imported from the Southeast United States and Eastern Europe.

Dutch policy could change further, biomass critics say. The general election for the Dutch House of Representatives is set for March 17 and public opposition to subsidizing burning wood pellets to make energy stands at 98%, according to a 2020 Dutch survey by De Telegraaf, the country’s largest newspaper.

A clearcut documented in the US Southeast in the spring of 2019 when investigators tracked logging trucks from a mature hardwood forest en-route to a North Carolina wood pellet manufacturing facility. Credit: Dogwood Alliance.

Maarten Visschers and Fenna Swart lead two separate conservation groups. They and others have aggressively lobbied Dutch elected officials for years to reduce the country’s dependence on woody biomass — which accounts for 61% of renewable* energy generated for the country’s 17.3 million people. They told Mongabay that the February 25 vote marked “a huge victory.”

“The vote came just before our national elections,” said Visschers of Leefmilieu (Environment). “The entire Parliament except the liberals voted for the motion (118-32) on the last day they were in session before the elections. Biomass burning is in the election (campaign) of every political party. There is a national climate demonstration on March 14, just before the election. Biomass will be an important issue on that day.”

The burning of forest biomass to make energy is becoming increasingly controversial, with scientists again and again debunking the long-standing industry and political claim that biomass is carbon neutral — what critics call a “carbon accounting loophole” that could, if not plugged, put the global climate at greater risk of destabilization.

Noting that the recent vote was limited in scope, Swart of Comité Schone Lucht (the Clean Air Committee) told Mongabay, “This step does indeed only concern new subsidies, but with this decision, the next step — stopping the existing and planned subsidies — is more logical and comes a lot closer. By declaring that new subsidies are no longer desirable until there is a definitive phasing-out trajectory, the government is forced to consider the end of all [biomass] subsidies. Continuing as usual has thus become a lot less likely.”

The Netherlands is known for its photogenic windmills. But when it comes to renewable energy, wind accounts for only 23% of the country’s mix compared to 61% of renewable energy from burning biomass in coal-fired power plants.* The vast majority of Dutch energy still comes from burning oil, natural gas and coal. Photo credit: Ignacio Ferre on / CC BY-NC-ND.

The Dutch decision comes as the United Nations sounds a red alert regarding deeply insufficient national emission reduction pledges made under the Paris Agreement to slow the rate of global warming and avoid imminent climate calamity. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) warned late last month that global emissions must fall by 50% by 2030 and that current reduction pledges are alarmingly short of that goal.

Both the European Union and United Kingdom rely heavily on burning woody biomass at former coal-fired power plants to help meet their carbon-reduction pledges. That’s because biomass is considered a renewable energy source under the Kyoto Protocol (a classification  tolerated by the Paris accord).

Thus, emissions from burning biomass are not counted at the smokestack, enabling countries to claim more robust progress toward emission reductions than they are actually making. A range of recent studies have found that woody biomass is actually more polluting than coal, while biomass atmospheric carbon reductions will not be redeemable until cut forests regrow decades from now, which many researchers say will be far too late to slow rapidly escalating climate change.

The Drax power station in the UK, one of the world’s largest users of woody biomass to make energy. 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.

Biomass industry still flourishing

UN fears and Dutch politics aside, the market for wood pellets, especially from the U.S., the world’s largest producer, continues to grow.

The U.S. exported nearly 7.26 million metric tons of wood pellets in 2020, up 5% from the 6.92 million metric tons exported in 2019, according to data released in February by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. In North Carolina — among the top pellet-producing states — the industry’s annual production of 2.5 million metric tons of pellets require the clearing of 61,000 acres of wooded land (either natural forests or tree plantations), according to the Dogwood Alliance, an NGO that tracks the industry.

The U.K. was the top 2020 destination for U.S. wood pellet exports at 5.63 million metric tons, followed by the Netherlands at 629,882 metric tons, more than it imported from the U.S. in 2019. The value of U.S. pellet exports last year topped $980 million, up slightly from 2019.

Christian Rakos, president of the World Bioenergy Association, told Mongabay that Dutch conservationists have it all wrong. He stressed that his association’s members care greatly about healthy forests and that harvesting wood for bioenergy is done sustainably to maintain carbon stocks and promote forest growth. (NGOs counter that the majority of wood harvested for pellets is done with clearcutting by loggers, which destroys carbon sinks and ecosystems.)

“My take on the Dutch decision is that it is as wrong and poorly informed as the Brexit decision in the U.K.,” said Rakos, responding from Austria. “It is based on campaigns that have not told the truth. The fact is, the Netherlands is currently among the worst-performing countries in Europe when it comes to renewable energy use and this [biomass] decision will further deteriorate its performance in terms of climate protection.”

He added: “Our position is to do everything possible to ensure [forest] sustainability, but to keep in mind that climate change is the greatest threat to ecosystems at present, and that it will be impossible to mitigate it without extensive use of bioenergy.”

More than 500 scientists from the U.S., EU and elsewhere wrote to top world leaders on February 11 to counter that biomass industry view: “We urge you not to undermine both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning trees to generate energy,” they wrote.

Wood pellets of the type burned in EU and UK power plants. The forestry industry often uses images like this one to promote forest biomass as a clean climate-friendly source of energy. Photo credit: Andrew_Writer on Visualhunt / CC BY.

Will RED II be revised in the EU?

In the EU in June, the issue of biomass subsidies, and whether to continue allowing the not counting of biomass emissions at the smokestack, will come under review when EU officials consider revising the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED II).

Swart said she hopes the recent Dutch vote will be influential: “We see that other member states are paying close attention to what is happening here in the Netherlands. It is not inconceivable that the Netherlands is the first domino that will cause a major shift in the coming crucial months toward the adaptation of the [revised] RED II.”

Dutch leaders Franz Timmermans (the current EU vice president), and Diederick Samson, (Timmermans’ cabinet chief), have both indicated a willingness to review biomass regulations. But Dutch media has reported that they appear poised to argue to allow for the continued burning of wood pellets so long as it’s done sustainably, as the industry claims, and so long as massive tree planting is emphasized to create new carbon sinks on the continent to absorb EU biomass emissions.

However, as the 500 scientists wrote early last month, and as the UNFCCC emphasized two weeks later, the window for dramatically reducing global emissions to avoid climate catastrophe is closing fast.

“We have to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible in the entire energy sector, including bioenergy,” said Bill Moomaw, a professor emeritus at Tufts University and a leading biomass expert. “Planting new trees will contribute very little carbon sequestration in the narrow timeframe we have to slow the rate of global warming,”

Correction: This story originally reported that: “They and others have aggressively lobbied Dutch elected officials for years to reduce the country’s dependence on woody biomass — which accounts for 61% of the heat and energy generated for the country’s 17.3 million people.” That has been corrected to read: “They and others have aggressively lobbied Dutch elected officials for years to reduce the country’s dependence on woody biomass — which accounts for 61% of renewable energy generated for the country’s 17.3 million people.” The caption for the historic windmill photo has also been corrected to reflect the renewable energy mix in the Netherlands.

Banner Image: Water vapor rises from the UK’s Drax power plant, a former coal burning facility converted to burn forest biomass. All of its greenhouse gas emissions are currently classified as carbon neutral. Photo credit: RyanTaylor1986 on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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