Background: 

The Swedish Presidency’s proposals for biomass policy fully mirror the interests of its forest industry. We consider this a misuse of the role of EU Presidency and ask Parliament and the Commission to renounce the Swedish proposal, and particularly ask the Council to follow the science. The future of Europe’s forests should not be decided by a Presidency that has been pushing for years to increase their exploitation – this is an explicit conflict of interest.

Dear policymakers from the European Parliament and European Commission,

No one likes a bully, but it’s surely bullying as the Swedish Presidency and the Council shove aside  Parliament’s proposals for safeguards and to cap and phase down tree-burning for ‘renewable energy’ in the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). As scientists and advocates for forests and the climate, we’re calling on you to stand up for science and oppose proposals from the Swedish Presidency that will continue destroying forests and increasing emissions. 

Scientists have long warned that logging and burning forests for renewable energy is harming forests and climate. Burning forest biomass emits more CO2 per unit energy than coal, while logging degrades the ability of forests to take CO2 out of the air. Back in 2016, the Commission’s own scientists warned that burning forest biomass nearly ‘inevitably’ increases carbon pollution compared to using fossil fuels, and can increase emissions for hundreds of years ‘or even to infinity.’ That statement assumed that forests grow back, but due to climate change and ecological degradation caused by clear-cuts, some new plantations are now failing to regenerate at all.  On top of all that, air pollution from burning wood kills thousands each year and costs the EU tens of billions in health and productivity costs. 

Despite those warnings, policymakers failed to limit tree-burning when they revised the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) in 2018, instead including ‘sustainability’ criteria for forest biomass that appear to have been written by the biomass industry and that do almost nothing to protect forests and the climate.

Now, we see the consequences of that failure. More than half of wood harvested in the EU is burned for energy, and since 2018, several member states have effectively lost their forest carbon sinks – meaning their forests are now net sources of climate-warming CO2. In Estonia and Latvia, wood pellet exports have helped liquidate the forest sink, despite big pellet manufacturing plants all having been certified ‘sustainable’ under the Sustainable Biomass Program, a standard accepted as proxy for the RED biomass criteria. Austria has essentially lost its forest sink, and Germany’s sink is weakening. Sweden, too, is seeing alarming reductions in forest carbon uptake. Even Finland, one of the most forested countries in Europe, has just lost its forest carbon sink, partly due to logging for fuel.

Incentives provided under the RED, including more than €10.3 billion in direct subsidies in 2018, have put a price tag on millions of trees burned in power plants. Exempting woodburning from EU ETS carbon tax serves as further incentive. Recently, the EU’s approach to counting residential wood-burning was exposed as bloating member state renewable energy numbers. It’s not just scientists and NGOs sounding the alarm – the wood-using industries that compete with the biomass industry are also demanding an end to biomass subsidies.

‘Forest slaughter’ is not an exaggeration when describing how wood pellet companies are logging pristine rainforests in Canada and old-growth mountain forests in Romania. Despite bans on Russian imports, RED incentives are a magnet for Russian wood pellets laundered through third countries. Old-growth forests and protected forests all over Europe and beyond are being logged with impunity. Considering all the damage, it’s remarkable that all this forest burning provides just 3% of the EU’s primary energy supply.

Yet a year ago Sweden (also Finland, Estonia and Poland, among others) published a letter opposing any reform of the RED II biomass policy. Since then, more evidence has emerged that Sweden is obliterating its natural forests. Nonetheless, Sweden tries to inflict their failed forestry model on the rest of the EU. 

It seems that some policymakers are being stampeded by fear-mongering from the biomass industry. What can we use instead of coal, they ask, to sustain Europe’s energy security? The politics are hard, they say.

But we remind you that the climate and biodiversity crises can’t wait for the resolution of the many conflicts in the world. Most importantly, it’s simply incorrect to treat decisions about the future role of forest biomass as relevant to energy supply this winter or the next. The RED’s provisions won’t come into effect until 2025. Your role is to enable a cleaner, safer energy future, not to lock in a renewable energy policy that actually destroys forests and increases emissions.  

Also, please, do the math. It’s unrealistic to think that burning more wood can replace even a small fraction of fossil fuel burning.

To be clear, no one is trying to ban wood-burning. But as long as burning trees qualifies as renewable energy, member states have little incentive to invest in truly low carbon technologies. We need to cap and phase down support for the burning of  forest biomass so it doesn’t undermine the EU’s climate, health and nature targets. We also need real protections for the last remaining patches of old-growth and primary forests, including in other countries that export wood pellets to the EU. 

Dear policy makers, you must not give in to the Swedish Presidency bullying. You must secure an actual cap and phase down of forest biomass for renewable energy, and oppose any deal that fails to deliver meaningful reform.  EU citizens want and deserve a clean energy future that protects climate, forests, and health.

Groups endorsing (still accepting sign-ons): 

BirdLife Europe and Central Asia
Partnership for Policy Integrity
Euronatur
Nature Nova Scotia, Canada
De Klimaatcoalitie, Netherlands
Federatie tegen Biomassacentrales, Netherlands
EDSP ECO, Netherlands
Bomenbond, Netherlands
Green Impact, Italy
Friends of Fertő Lake Association, Hungary
Leefmilieu, Netherlands
Comité Schone Lucht, Netherlands
Coastal Plain Conservation Group, USA
Latvian Ornithological Society, Latvia
Mobilisation for the Environment, Netherlands
AbibiNsroma Foundation, Ghana
NOAH, Denmark
Protect the Forest Sweden
Earth Ethics, Inc., USA
ZERO – Associação Sistema Terrestre Sustentável, Portugal
Acréscimo Portugal
Global Justice Ecology Project, USA
ROBIN WOOD, Germany
IRIS, Associação Nacional de Ambiente, Portugal
Friends of the Irish Environment, Ireland
Save Estonia’s Forests, Estonia
SOS/BirdLife Slovakia
Australian Forests and Climate Alliance
Ei polteta tulevaisuutta -kampanja, Finland
BirdLife Denmark
Lipu (BirdLife’s Italian partner)
Wild Heritage, USA
BirdLife Sweden
Canberra Forest Alliance, Australia
Friends of the Forest (Mogo), Australia
No Electricity from Forests, NSW, Australia
Association for All Beings, Poland
North Coast Environment Council, NSW Australia
North East Forest Alliance, NSW Australia
Coastwatchers Association Inc, NSW Australia

 

 

 

An open letter on forest biomass from scientists and NGOs to policymakers
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3 thoughts on “An open letter on forest biomass from scientists and NGOs to policymakers

  • February 3, 2023 at 9:13 am
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    EuroNatur

  • February 7, 2023 at 12:28 pm
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    I agree completely with the open letter by the forest defenders alliance!!

  • February 7, 2023 at 3:21 pm
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    Please add my name to the letter.

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