For Immediate Release: 30 March, 2023
European leaders have agreed on new limits to use of forest biomass under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED). The compromise policy, hammered out among the European Parliament, Commission, and Council in a session that went into the early hours of March 30th, eliminates subsidies for energy generated by burning certain categories of forest wood, ends direct financial support for electricity generated by burning biomass in electricity-only plants, disqualifies burning wood from primary and old growth forests from counting toward renewable energy targets, and requires support for bioenergy be aligned with the “cascading principle.” The Council, which dominated the proceedings, killed the European Parliament’s proposal to directly reduce the amount of energy from forest biomass that counts toward the EU’s renewable energy targets, but greenlighted new rules requiring EU countries to assess whether biomass use is compatible with climate goals. Additionally, EU member states will be permitted to add new requirements governing what kinds of biomass qualify as providing renewable energy. The reforms will become final once formally voted by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in the coming weeks..
NGOs who had campaigned to phase out forest biomass energy from the RED condemned the agreement’s failure to reduce the amount of wood-burning counted as “renewable” energy, especially in light of the decision to increase the renewable energy target overall from 30% to 42.5%. Nonetheless, they commended the new requirements linking biomass to loss of forest carbon sinks and language requiring that subsidy schemes for biomass prioritize long-lived uses of wood, rather than burning it for energy. NGOs will also be urging Member States to adopt stronger restrictions for use of forest wood for fuel, as permitted under the legislation.
Key elements of the agreement include:
Limits on the amount and kinds of forest biomass receiving subsidies
The deal excludes energy from burning certain categories of forest wood from receiving direct financial support. These include:
- Saw logs and veneer logs
- “Industrial grade roundwood” meaning wood suitable for use in wood products such as paper or lumber.
- Stumps and roots
The limits on support for “energy” means that neither heat nor electricity generated by burning these categories of wood should receive support. As little data exist on the amount of wood that would fall into these categories, it is unclear what the impact will be, and it is likely to vary widely country-to-country, given that Member States have wide discretion in determining what wood is considered as “industrial grade roundwood.”
Limits on support for biomass electricity
Also disqualified from receiving new or renewed support is electricity from burning forest biomass in electricity-only installations. The definition of forest biomass being inclusive of all wood from forestry, this is a broad disqualification, but contains derogations for power plants operating in “just transition” regions and outermost regions, and plants employing biomass CO2 capture and storage, as well as certain plants that already received support.
This provision may make it less economic to operate electricity-only plants. Such plants consume a small fraction of total wood burned in the EU, but they are extremely inefficient. The derogations may mean that some of the largest plants may continue operating and receiving millions of euro per year in subsidies.
Disqualification of wood from old growth forests and other special ecosystems
The agreement requires that countries or regions providing biomass have national or sub-national laws as well as monitoring and enforcement systems to ensure that certain “sustainable” harvesting requirements are met. If those conditions are not met, the agreement disqualifies wood sourced from certain ecosystems from counting toward renewable energy targets or receiving subsidies under Article 29. These ecosystems include primary forests, old growth forests, “highly biodiverse” forests, wetlands, peatlands, and heathlands.
Limits to ensure that biomass use doesn’t undermine land carbon sink
The EU has enacted the LULUCF Regulation that sets 2030 “land carbon sink” targets for each Member State. Most Member States will only achieve targets if forests are protected and restored. New provisions in the RED at Article 29.7(a) and (b) require Member States to assess biomass supply and the compatibility of forest biomass use with the land sink targets, and report on national measures and policies ensuring compatibility with them.
New sustainability criteria allowed
Article 29.14 allows Member States to adopt new sustainability criteria for biomass fuels to govern their eligibility for meeting renewable energy targets and receiving subsidies. This broadly defined provision will apply to all biomass, not just biomass sourced directly from forests.
Sustainability criteria apply to plants with thermal input of 7.5 MW
Existing and new requirements will apply to biomass installations of 7.5 MW thermal input and above, leaving the majority of biomass burned in the EU uncovered by any requirements (for breakdown of biomass by category and sector, see https://bit.ly/433pcdQ). However, Member States are allowed to apply the sustainability criteria to installations with lower total rated thermal input.
“In the wake of the IPCC’s most frightening report yet, as we see the collapse of the forest carbon sink in various countries and regions due to overlogging for biomass fuel, it’s a no-brainer to slam the brakes on logging forests for renewable energy,” said, Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity. “Requiring Member States to assess how logging forests is undermining their ability to reduce emissions spells the end of the fantasy that biomass energy is carbon neutral and the first steps toward a rational, science-based renewable energy policy.”
Revising the EU’s policy on bioenergy was one of the last and most contentious issues to be resolved in the Trilogue on the RED, with the European Parliament seeking to restrict the amount of forest biomass that could be counted toward the EU’s renewable energy targets and receive subsidies, while the Council preferred a business-as-usual approach.
A broad coalition of NGOs and scientists from across Europe and North America has been campaigning since 2020 to remove forest biomass from the RED, citing the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. These groups successfully drew policymakers’ attention to the issue through a high-profile campaign that included scientific reports, petitions, protests, paid ads, and media coverage (https://forestdefenders.eu/media/).
EU policies that incentivize burning wood as ‘renewable energy’ have driven a steep increase in use. Burning forest wood for energy increases carbon pollution in the atmosphere for decades to over a century, compared to fossil fuels, and destroys forests that are critical for taking carbon out of the air and for providing habitat. Around half the wood logged in the EU is burned for energy, and as biomass use has increased, predicted effects are emerging. Most of the EU member states have experienced steep declines in their forest carbon sinks (https://forestdefenders.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/PFPI-Burning-up-the-carbon-sink-Nov-7-2022.pdf) over the past two decades, or have lost them altogether. In addition, multiple independent investigations have documented highly destructive logging of primary and old growth forests in the US, Canada, and Europe to supply biomass fuel, including illegal logging in national parks and other protected areas in Eastern Europe, showing that the “forest sustainability criteria” in the current RED II are completely ineffective.
For more background, go to https://forestdefenders.eu/