EU policymakers are considering capping and phasing down burning trees and other forest biomass for renewable energy. Unfortunately, the proposed policy isn’t in line with the best science on climate and forests. While they are considering disallowing energy from ’primary woody biomass’ (essentially, wood from forests) from counting toward the EU’s renewable energy targets, they want to exempt wood from salvage logging, a.k.a. sanitary logging, allowing the combustion of salvaged wood to continue to be considered as producing ’renewable’ energy.
The problem is, this exemption treats burning salvaged wood as good for nature and the climate, when in fact, it increases emissions compared to fossil fuels, and can seriously degrade ecosystems.
Salvage logging includes both the removal of dead trees and often, living trees (to prevent the spread of diseases or pests). Some member states have seen a surge in salvage logging (download data here; also see page 36 at JRC biomass report).
In their 2021 report, the Joint Research Centre assessed the climate and ecosystem impacts of several biomass sourcing scenarios. An early draft of the report included salvage logging scenarios, finding that logging and burning this wood for energy, where the assumed alternative fate is that it stays in the forest and decomposes, is generally medium to high risk for climate and ecosystems.
The scenarios were ultimately excluded from the JRC’s final report because of various complexities in figuring out the alternative fates (see FAQ #6 at this link), but the overall conclusion is clear that burning salvaged wood for energy (Scenarios 10, 11, 12) has the same problems as burning ‘coarse woody debris’ following logging (Scenario 1, lower right-hand corner).
Thorn et al. (2018) looked into the impact of salvage logging on several kinds of animal, plant, and fungal life. They found significant negative effects on decomposer species, especially in salvage operations after fires and windstorms. These type of disturbances create specific habitats and structures for many species, but salvage logging destroys these. This is particularly damaging to protected areas, where the objective is to preserve maximal biodiversity and the full web of life.
Accordingly, the proposal by policymakers to continue counting and incentivizing burning salvaged wood as renewable energy under the Renewable Energy Directive will simply serve to undermine climate and nature restoration goals. Further, given that salvage logging is an increasing share of total harvesting in several member states, allowing its combustion to continue qualifying as renewable energy simply locks in continued wood-burning and permits member states to avoid ramping up truly clean renewable energy even longer.