- As the European Union finalizes its third Renewable Energy Directive (REDIII), France is seeking an exemption to enable the European Space Agency and French Space Agency to build and operate two biomass power plants in French Guiana. An estimated 5,300 hectares of Amazon rainforest would need to be cut and biomass crops grown on the cleared land to service the power plants.
- The biomass would be burned to help power Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. The exemption request — which would allow EU and French public subsidies to flow to a France-based bioenergy plant builder — comes as the EU moves toward banning commodities contributing significantly to global deforestation.
- This latest move by France comes soon after it won an appeal of a 2021 court ruling in French Guiana that blocked massive Amazon clearcutting for croplands to provide liquid biofuels for three new, large power plants to make energy for the Fr. Guiana populace. Decisions on the REDIII exemption and liquid biofuels plan could come in March.
- Environmentalists are decrying the French Guiana biomass plans — and French President Emmanuel Macron’s passive support of them — not only for the Amazon deforestation it will cause, but because biomass burned to produce energy has been scientifically shown to release higher levels of carbon emissions than coal.
France, which hosted the historic 2015 Paris Climate Agreement meeting, and will soon co-host an international summit to help preserve the world’s three largest remaining rainforests, is seeking a European Union policy exemption that would allow for subsidies that could result in the clearcutting of thousands of hectares of intact, biodiverse Amazon rainforest for bioenergy production.
If that plan goes ahead, the cut trees and woody biomass grown on the deforested land in French Guiana would provide fuel new biomass plants, helping power Europe’s Spaceport for decades.
In early February, political allies of French President Emmanuel Macron quietly introduced the proposal as an amendment in the final stages of negotiations on the EU’s third Renewable Energy Directive (REDIII). The directive’s overarching goal is to provide the policies for complying with continental law to reduce EU carbon emissions by 55% by 2030.
Within REDIII are new regulations aimed at limiting subsidies and wood harvested from native forests for the purpose of making wood pellets to burn for energy generation. However, the latest iteration of RED continues to define woody biomass as a carbon neutral, renewable energy source, even though a host of studies show it to “release higher levels of emissions than coal,” and despite the fact that trees cut to make biomass and then regrown over many decades cannot achieve carbon neutrality within the urgent timeframe required to effectively curb the climate crisis.
If France’s requested amendment is approved, “it would be an unprecedented opportunity to encourage the replacement of thousands of hectares of biodiversity-rich [Amazon] forest with intensive tree plantations for energy purposes,” said Marine Calmet, president of the Paris-based NGO Wild Legal.
RED applies to French Guiana, an Indiana-sized department of France on the north coast of South America that borders Brazil. It represents Europe’s only territorial foothold in Amazonia where French Guiana — population 268,000 — is still more than 98% covered by intact, biodiverse mangrove and tropical forest.
The French government has eyed huge swaths of the department’s forests for years for its bioenergy potential — initially to burn the wood, then in using the cleared land for growing bioenergy crops on tree, soy and sugarcane plantations.
French proponents of this REDIII environmental exemption (officially called a derogation), want to enable IDEX, a French construction company, to build two biomass power plants by 2024-25 to provide energy to the European Space Agency and French Space Agency in the Kourou District on French Guiana’s north coast. The relatively small plants would consume an estimated 120,000 tons of Amazon woody biomass annually for at least 20 years, helping power the European Spaceport.
If construction goes forward, IDEX would be eligible for EU public subsidies for construction and French public subsidies in the sale of the bioenergy.
The NGO Biofuelwatch estimates that 120,000 tons of biomass would require the deforesting of more than 5,300 hectares, or 20-plus square miles, of rainforest over the 20 year period. Critics note that the plant would also release climate-destabilizing carbon to the atmosphere.
Government officials in French Guiana are pushing the proposal as a means to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels for energy. Local officials also hope bioenergy will create much-needed new jobs in the territory which has 26% unemployment.
Meanwhile, in a related threat to the rainforests of French Guiana, France recently won an appeal of a 2021 court decision in its South American Department that had blocked the planned clearcutting of up to 230,000 hectares (890 square miles) of dense, intact rainforest in French Guiana — an area triple in size to New York City — to grow soy for three large liquid biofuel power plants (replacing aging fossil-fuel burning plants), to produce energy for the general population.
Francois Kuseni, an environmental activist in French Guiana, told Mongabay that NGOs in France and his department are appealing the decision. Decisions on both the REDIII exemption and the liquid biofuels plan could come in March.
EU environmentalists, who learned about the RED proposal only after it was submitted, are aghast. They’ve been rushing to organize opposition to the exemption in the European Council, EU Commission and Parliament as negotiations to complete REDIII continue.
“It is deeply concerning that the French government is lobbying the EU to be allowed to deforest part of the Amazon,” said Almuth Ernsting, a bioenergy expert with Biofuelwatch in Scotland.
“Ironically, the same French government will next month [on March 1st] be co-hosting a One Forest Summit in Gabon [Africa] dedicated to protecting the world’s three largest remaining rainforests. By promoting deforestation in part of the rainforest it controls, France risks losing any credibility to global forest preservation and its climate change commitments.”
For now, EU administrative policy and the courts have prevented this targeted deforestation from taking place in French Guiana, even as other parts of the Amazon — in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, for example — are extensively clearcut for ranches, roads, plantations and resource extraction. This ongoing environmental destruction is threatening wildlife and pushing the world’s largest rainforest closer to tipping from being a net carbon sink to a net carbon source, potentially disrupting water cycling and climate patterns in South America and globally.
Unchecked deforestation continues to also undermine the rights and quality of life of Amazon Indigenous peoples, which forest advocates also decry and fear happening in French Guiana.
Mobilizing opposition to the exemption
In recent weeks, forest advocates have mobilized to oppose the proposed exemption. A petition is being circulated in the EU titled, “Amazonia: NO to deforestation for biomass power plants in French Guiana.” And on February 7, Le Monde, the French newspaper, carried a commentary signed by 19 environmentalists and scientists mostly from France opposing the plan.
French Guiana’s “forest is both one of the richest and least fragmented and is recognized as one of the 15 best-preserved tropical rainforest areas on the planet,” they wrote, adding:
France, under the guise of developing this energy, which is green only in terms of the color of the trees it consumes, intends to ‘green’ the space sector, an activity that alone represents 18% of the electricity produced in French Guiana, and to launch projects for the local production of new [biofuels] on this deforested land. Sending rockets into space repainted in green thanks to [biofuels] seems to be a priority, while preserving the condition of habitability of our planet is not.
Forest advocates have also been quick to point out the jarring incongruity posed by the French Guiana exemption, even as France supports an aggressive new EU policy that seeks to ban the import of commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef, rubber and cocoa produced on newly deforested land anywhere in the world.
Calmet stressed that opponents of the exemption are targeting President Macron in their attack because of his carefully crafted image as a global environmental champion: “We hope for a backlash,” she said. “Macron hates this kind of criticism.”
Martin Pigeon, a climate and forest advocate with the NGO Fern in Belgium, co-signed the Le Monde commentary. He told Mongabay that because liberal and green parties in the European Parliament, and others in the European Commission, appear to oppose the French Guiana exemption, it’s possible the proposal will fail.
While France could still push ahead with its plan without REDIII’s blessing, Pigeon said France and the EU would be unable to grant public subsidies for bioenergy at the Spaceport, thus potentially undermining the project’s financial viability.
“It should be obvious to anyone who accepts the scientific evidence of the climate and biodiversity crisis,” Pigeon said, “that forests should be nurtured and replenished as much as possible everywhere in Europe and on the planet.”
Calmet, another Le Monde co-signer, told Mongabay she is aggrieved at the actions of her government — a government that enjoys an international reputation for environmental activism but whose actions, she said, are often contradictory.
“The rainforests of Guiana are so rich in biodiversity that they haven’t even been fully inventoried by scientists,” Calmet of Wild Legal said. “How then is it conceivable to authorize the creation of [an exemption] to destroy the only territory [held by] Europe that contains a large tropical forest? While [former Brazil President] Jair Bolsonaro is barely leaving power, replaced by President Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva], who has pledged to put an end to deforestation, it is unthinkable that France wants to move in a negative direction.”
Banner image: Sentinel-2A lift off atop a Vega launch vehicle in 2015 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. Image by ESA-M. Pedoussaut via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Justin Catanoso is a regular contributor to Mongabay and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in the United States.
French Guiana soy biofuel power plants risk massive Amazon deforestation