This summer the EU is suffering through a punishing drought, accompanied by record-breaking forest fires. Copernicus, the EU’s remote sensing center, has published figures showing carbon emissions from summer fires in Spain, Portugal and France as of August 11 were around 4.5 million tonnes. Converted to units of carbon dioxide (CO2), that’s 16.5 million tonnes.

People are naturally concerned about how those emissions are accelerating climate change. Yet going largely unremarked is that every year, the EU emits far more CO2 from logging and burning forest wood (“biomass”) for renewable energy – even encouraging the logging and burning of forest wood with billions in renewable energy subsdies. 

The scale of the problem is immense. Yearly emissions from burning wood for energy are now around 311 million tonnes, of which about half is “primary” woody biomass (i.e. forest biomass, taken directly from forests) and half is “secondary” woody biomass, meaning mostly mill residues.

So to put the emissions from the fires in perspective, the 16.5 million tonnes is just over 5% of the total emissions from burning all woody biomass that the EU promotes as “renewable” energy… or around 11% of the emissions from burning just forest biomass. But that doesn’t include the effect on the atmosphere of removing trees that could continue to take up CO2. As a recent piece on the fires puts it, “Once a fire is extinguished and its smoke plume has dissipated, the impact on the climate is measured in terms of the number of trees that have burned. Once they are gone, plants can no longer play their role as ‘carbon sinks.’” 

That’s true when a forest is logged for fuel, as well!

This isn’t in any way to downplay the severity of the fires. But it’s a serious blindspot in the discussion about fires and climate change to ignore the much greater emissions from deliberate biomass burning that is promoted and incentivised as renewable energy. You might even say the EU’s policy of logging and burning forest wood for fuel, when burning wood actually emits more CO2 than burning fossil fuels, is certifiably insane. It’s the sadly inevitable result, though, of policymakers who uncritically accept the claims of the biomass and forest industry.

There’s a vote upcoming in the EU Parliament on September 13th that will consider an amendment to take most forest biomass out of the Renewable Energy Directive.  EU citizens should hope policymakers will stand up against industry interests, and for forests and the climate, before it’s too late.

Forest fire CO2 emissions vs. biomass energy emissions – which is worse?
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