- The European Parliament’s Environment Committee this week made strong, but nonbinding, recommendations to put a brake on the EU’s total commitment to burning forest biomass to produce energy. While environmentalists cautiously hailed the decision, the forestry industry condemned it.
- A key recommendation urges that primary woody biomass (that made from whole trees) to produce energy and heat no longer receive government subsidies under the EU’s revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED).
- Another recommendation called for primary woody biomass to no longer be counted toward EU member states’ renewable energy targets. Currently, biomass accounts for 60% of the EU’s renewable energy portfolio, far more than zero-carbon wind and solar.
- The Environment Committee recommendations mark the first time any part of the EU government has questioned the aggressive use of biomass by the EU to meet its Paris Agreement goals. A final decision by the EU on its biomass burning policies is expected in September as part of its revised Renewable Energy Directive.
In a surprising and unprecedented vote this week, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee recommended the scaling back of the EU’s existing subsidies incentivizing the burning of wood pellets, replacing coal for heat and energy. The committee also urged the European Union to reduce how much it counts forest biomass toward the continent’s renewable energy goals.
Forest advocates are viewing the move with both hope and skepticism.
If approved and written into policy in September as part of the EU’s revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED), the recommendations would be the first steps of any kind toward slowing the accelerating use of biomass burning over the past 12 years, which scientists have long argued adds to carbon emissions, damages forests, and diminishes biodiversity.
“We are relieved to see a majority of the Environment Committee opt for a biomass limitation for energy and heat,” Fenna Swart of The Netherlands’ Clean Air Committee told Mongabay. “But there are still significant gaps in the law that the European Parliament must close during the plenary vote in September. Otherwise, compliance will backfire at the expense of forests, as is now happening on a large scale.”
The committee put forward four recommendations cautiously cheered by forest advocates like Swart — forest biomass opponents who have generated widespread public opposition to the practice across Europe, but who have yet to see any policy reform. The committee recommended that:
- A definition for primary woody biomass, or biomass sourced directly from whole trees, be added to RED for the first time, with the intention of protecting intact forests. Exemptions would include forests affected by fire, pests and disease.
- Primary woody biomass no longer qualify as counting toward member states’ renewable energy targets. Currently, biomass accounts for 60% of the EU’s renewable energy portfolio, far more than zero-carbon wind and solar.
- Primary woody biomass no longer receive subsidies under RED, with certain exemptions.
- Where whole trees are harvested, they should first be used for long-lasting wood products and only burned for energy as wood pellets if no other usage options exist.
Wood-pellet industry representatives, who are only accustomed to government support, were not happy with the recommendations. “Excluding primary biomass would set back efforts to achieve European energy security, raise energy prices for consumers, and put the EU’s climate goals far out of reach,” the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, an industry group, wrote in a statement.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to this week’s recommendations being written into RED is Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s vice president and its leader on climate policy.
While the influential Dutch politician acknowledged and lamented for the first time publicly last week the clearcutting of Baltic forests for wood pellets, he has maintained his support for biomass as the best way for the EU to phase out coal, as it is legally required to do.
“To be perfectly blunt with you, biomass will have to be a part of our energy portfolio if we are to remove our dependency on fossil fuels,” Timmermans said in November during the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.
Carbon neutrality loophole
The issue of using biomass to make energy and heat, primarily in the form of wood pellets, is a flashpoint between politicians and forest advocates largely because of a United Nations-tolerated policy that labels biomass a renewable energy source equivalent to wind and solar.
As such, carbon emissions produced by biomass burning are classified as producing “zero emissions,” with no need to be counted at the smokestack. This allows countries the opportunity to subsidize wood burning, and claim emissions reductions on paper in order to achieve their Paris Agreement pledges. However, large amounts of carbon are already soaring skyward from biomass power plant stacks, adding to the sum of greenhouse gases destabilizing the climate.
The European policy created a carbon neutrality loophole based on the belief that expanding forests and newly planted trees would quickly offset the emissions from wood harvested and burned for energy, a claim regularly made by the forestry industry. Research shows, however, that the carbon debt payback period, if it exists at all, takes 50 years or more — time climate scientists stress the earth does not have to slow the rate of warming and avoid rapidly intensifying climate disasters.
Research has also shown that burning wood is actually more polluting than coal because it is less energy dense per kilowatt hour. Simply put, power plants need to burn more wood than coal to generate the same amount of energy.
“Here in Germany, we are increasingly concerned by the number of power plants that are considering converting to burning wood,” said Kenneth Richter, a German forest advocate with the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council. “It makes no sense to talk about restoring forests for climate and nature, and to initiate climate efforts like planting 3 billion trees in Europe, and at the same time pay companies to log and burn forests for fuel.”
Waste wood or whole trees?
The booming, multibillion-dollar wood-pellet industry argues that it uses mostly waste wood to make pellets — lumber waste, limbs and treetops, plus trees killed by pests or disease. But forest advocates have used their close monitoring of the industry to show that big international biomass companies, such as Enviva and Drax, actually use whole trees logged and clear-cut from native forests and tree plantations for at least half of wood-pellet production, and that may be a significant underestimate.
Whether in the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, the Southeastern United States or British Columbia — where forests are clear cut and wood is harvested for millions of tons of wood pellets — new research shows that the critical carbon-sequestration capacity of those forests is being steadily eroded at a point in the climate crisis when those ecosystem services are needed most.
Meanwhile, Timmermans’ support for biomass as an alternative to fossil fuels is intensifying. Earlier this month, he promoted a plan to the European Parliament called REPowerEU to wean Europe off oil and gas from Russia as retribution for the brutal war it continues to wage against Ukraine.
The comprehensive plan calls for greater energy conservation and accelerated investments in wind and solar installations. Calling bioenergy renewable, the plan also argues that “it is a domestically available and stable energy source, especially solid biomass for some forest-rich Member States.”
REPowerEU adds a line favored by Timmermans, who has said he believes biomass offers sustainable energy: “As long as the strengthened safeguards for its sustainable sourcing are put into place and complied with, increased bioenergy use can contribute to replacing Russian imported fossil fuels including natural gas, e.g. for heating. Current estimates show a moderate but steady increase of biomass use until 2030.”
Augustyn Mikos, a forest advocate in Poland, challenged the plan’s underlying premise of sustainability regarding biomass: “In Poland, we are already seeing our precious old-growth forests logged for fuel. The government’s recently announced plans to help replace Russian fossil fuels by burning more wood signal an ecological catastrophe.”
Betting on the status quo
Maryland-based Enviva, the world’s largest maker and exporter of wood pellets, appears to be basing long-term business decisions on EU wood-pellet demand remaining strong and subsidies remaining intact, along with rising demand and subsidies in the United Kingdom, Japan and South Korea.
CEO John Keppler announced on May 9 that Enviva has signed a memorandum of understanding with “a large German utility. Enviva’s wood pellets will displace coal usage in the utility’s power plants, with delivered volumes expected to be at least 1 million metric tons per year.”
Keppler noted that the contract, when finalized, would be for 10 to 15 years, with deliveries of pellets from the U.S. starting next year. He also noted that Enviva, which has six pellet plants in Virginia and North Carolina, just opened its largest plant in Mississippi and expects to start construction on an even bigger pellet plant in Alabama soon.
More plants are being planned in the Deep South, Keppler said, as Enviva works “toward its goal of expanding capacity to 13 million metric tons per year over the next five years.” The company produced less than half that much last year — 6.2 million metric tons.
Swart, a forest advocate in The Netherlands, said she recognizes that she and others face an uphill battle in seeing EU biomass policy revised in a way that slows wood pellet demand.
“The science couldn’t be clearer that burning wood is increasing emissions and destroying forests,” she said. “It’s good to see the (European Parliament’s) Environment Committee recognize the problems with bioenergy, but there is still much to be done.”
Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso
Banner image: The forestry industry has used photos like this one to promote forest biomass burning as “green.” Photo credit ODF on Visual Hunt CC BY.
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