Brussels, 12:33 am May 17th 2022:  A vote (45+ to 36-, 6 abstentions) in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee (ENVI) has recommended reducing eligibility of heat and power from burning trees and other forest biomass as counting toward the EU’s renewable energy targets, and largely ending renewable energy subsidies for forest biomass, with certain exceptions. This will be confirmed in a final committee vote during the day on May 17th  on the RED legislative proposal as amended. The final Parliamentary decision on the reforms will be taken when the RED is voted on as part of the broader “Fit for 55” Climate package in September.

NGOs cautiously welcomed the outcome as an important step towards fixing a dangerous loophole in the EU’s climate policy. Luke Chamberlain, EU Policy Director for the Partnership for Policy Integrity and lead author on a Forest Defenders Alliance report highlighting how the EU biomass industry increasingly burns trees for fuel, said, “We are relieved to see a clear majority of ENVI committee members support  restricting burning forest wood for energy, but considerable loopholes remain that the European Parliament must close in the plenary vote. This is a true all-hands-on-deck moment as the EU will never hit its climate targets unless it commits to protecting and restoring forests and to truly zero-emissions renewable energy.”

Important changes to biomass policy included:

  • A definition for primary woody biomass (PWB), meaning biomass sourced directly from forests, was added for the first time to the RED. The definition however includes exemptions for forests affected by fires, pests and disease, carving out significant potential loopholes for the use of PWB.
  • PWB will no longer qualify as counting towards Member States’ renewable energy targets, with a number of exemptions: bioenergy produced at installations smaller than 7.5 MW heat input, installations with BECCS technology, and electricity-only installations less than 20 MW in the EU’s just transition regions
  • PWB will no longer receive subsidies under the RED, again with a set of exemptions.
  • The cascading principle for biomass now needs to be taken into account, including for secondary woody biomass: wood should first be used for longer lived products, and only if there are no options for this use should it be burned for energy.

European Commission scientists have warned that burning biomass emits more CO2  per unit energy than coal, and increases carbon pollution over climate-relevant timeframes because logging and burning forests emits CO2 quickly, while forest regrow slowly.  About half the wood burned in the EU is “primary woody biomass,” meaning biomass sourced directly from forests, and the other half is secondary woody biomass, which includes mill residues like sawdust, black liquor, and post-consumer wood waste. The amendments adopted by the ENVI committee define primary and secondary woody biomass, placing  limits on eligibility of PWB for renewable energy subsidies. Under the agreement, secondary woody biomass continues to count toward the EU’s renewable energy targets and be eligible for subsidies.

Nuno Forner, Policy Officer at NGO Zero, said.”It’s welcome that EU legislation will finally define primary woody biomass, but we are concerned about the potentially major loophole that the fire exemption provides. Here in Portugal, this scenario is somehow justification for the use of logs for electricity production as well as for the production of wood pellets, when this wood should be directed to industry for the production of value-added products that sequester carbon for several decades.”

The NGOs are concerned by the amount of wood that would still be burned under the agreement. Lina Burnelius, Project Leader at Protect the Forest Sweden, said “We are afraid that this half-step will be celebrated as some sort of victory, when in reality more than half of the biomass burned will, under this proposal, still receive subsidies and still not be included in the emissions statistics. The gap between what the science shows is needed and what’s been put on the table is severe.”

NGOs have long been campaigning to remove eligibility of forest biomass as renewable energy. These efforts have been highlighted since EU policy has begun crediting CO2 taken up by forests toward the EU’s greenhouse gas reduction targets, and set a goal for increasing CO2 stored by forests and other land. Using satellite data, scientists from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre identified a large increase in forest harvesting, including clearcutting, that appears to be largely driven by forest logging for fuel.

“Here in Germany, we are increasingly concerned by the number of power plants that are considering converting to burning wood.” said Kenneth Richter, campaigner with German NGO NABU and the U.S. NGO Natural Resources Defense Council.  “It makes no sense to talk about restoring forests for climate and nature, and to initiate climate efforts like planting three billion trees in Europe, and at the same time pay companies to log and burn forests for fuel.”

The issue of forest biomass has also been elevated recently as the biomass industry argues that burning more forest wood can help replace Russian fossil fuels. While forest biomass currently provides about 3% of the EU’s total energy, providing this already requires burning about half the wood harvested from the EU’s forests. Replacing around 10% of Russian fossil fuels imported into the EU would require increasing wood-burning by about 60%.

Augustyn Mikos, forest campaigns coordinator at Association Workshop for All Beings said “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. We welcome any EU policy that reduces eligibility of wood for renewable energy subsidies, though loopholes could still allow wood to replace coal in energy transition areas like Poland.“

Sommer Ackerman, an activist with Europe Beyond Burning, a campaign of Fridays For Future, said “While this is a small step in the right direction, what we need is a massive leap, because without doing so too many emissions will still be produced. We desperately need the EU to push for emission free solutions, which means investing in true renewables like wind, solar and geothermal, instead of subsidising harmful and false solutions like biomass with billions of euros every year. We must listen to the science and go beyond burning.”

Fenna Swart of the Netherlands NGO Clean Air Committee has been campaigning intensively against biomass in the Netherlands, where a recent vote removed support for low temperature heating from biomass. She said, “The science couldn’t be clearer that burning wood is increasing emissions and destroying forests. It’s good to see the ENVI committee recognize the problems with bioenergy, but there is still much to be done.”

European Parliament’s Environment Committee recommends curtailing burning forest biomass for renewable energy

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