Advocates insist on science-based policies to protect forests and the climate
A leaked draft previewing potential changes to criteria that qualify forest biomass under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) is just window-dressing, according to NGOs who have been asking the EC for reforms. The groups are asking for the draft to be completely rejected and for forest biomass to be removed from the RED altogether as an eligible fuel.
Use of forest biomass for heat and power has been extremely controversial in the EU, with increasing demand for wood fuel in the EU driving new forest harvesting both in EU member states and in countries that export wood fuel to the EU. About half the wood burned in the EU is sourced directly from forests, and half is mill residues and post-consumer waste. As acknowledged by the European Commission’s own scientists, logging and burning forest wood to generate “renewable energy” in the EU increases net CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuels for decades to centuries, degrades forest ecosystems and biodiversity, and is a significant source of fine particulate pollution, which is estimated to kill nearly 400,000 Europeans per year. Even the lowest-efficiency residential wood-burning counts as renewable energy. While about 60% of the EU’s renewable energy comes from combusting biomass or biomass-derived fuels in some form, around 18% comes from burning wood sourced from forests.
NGOs have been running a campaign to remove forest biomass from the RED II, pointing to its impacts on climate-warming CO2 emissions, forest degradation, and air pollution.
The US based Natural Resources Defense Council helped coordinate a campaign to collect signatures on a petition asking policymakers to take forest biomass out of the RED, with handover of the petition on June 15th. NRDC’s EU policy director Kenneth Richter says: “Yesterday, NGOs handed over the signatures of nearly 220,000 citizens from a petition to Commission Vice President Timmermans that asks the EU to exclude forest biomass from the Renewable Energy Directive. Today we saw DG Energy’s draft revision of the Renewable Energy Directive, that maintains the status quo and ignores citizen’s voices. The Commission needs to heed the concerns of people around the world and take immediate steps to protect forests, our climate and our health.”
The draft proposes to make minor adjustments to the criteria, including discouraging use of “high quality” stemwood for energy, and extending other minor changes to a greater population of biomass burning plants than originally proposed. The proposal would also disqualify old-growth forests as sources of biomass, but an earlier proposal for reform admits such forests comprise a tiny proportion of forests in the EU.
Dr. Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said the reforms are just business-as-usual. “The options will do nothing to fix the two main problems with bioenergy, that burning wood emits more carbon pollution than burning fossil fuels, while it takes decades to centuries for forests to regrow to offset those emissions, and that logging forests for fuel is destroying forest ecosystems from Russia to the EU to western Canada and the southern US.”
Siim Kuresoo of the Estonian Fund for Nature is likewise disappointed by the proposed reforms. “We are watching the wood pellet industry log its way though Estonia’s unique and treasured forest ecosystems. Even if the restrictions on so-called ‘high-quality’ stemwood meant anything, they would do nothing to protect the oldest and most unique trees that provide habitat and give Estonian forests their special character. We need a full ban on forest wood in the RED because the concept of ‘value’ to the biomass industry is not at all related to the value of certain trees to the ecosystem.”
Lina Burnelius, with the Swedish NGO Protect the Forest, has long campaigned against the wholesale clearcutting in Sweden. “About 80% of the harvested biomass in Sweden is burned for energy or used for short-lived products. Subsidies for biomass energy are supporting this total obliteration of forests, which is now threatening Sweden’s last remaining unprotected old-growth forests. It’s shocking that policymakers offer no serious reform – the leaked proposal shows clear denial of science.”
Fenna Swart of the NGO Clean Air Committee in the Netherlands was personally present at the handing over of the petition. “Top European Commission scientists have warned policymakers that the increasing reliance on wood burning for energy undermines action on the climate and biodiversity crises. The problematic EU policy on biomass combustion is recognized worldwide, except by those who pull the strings in Brussels and do everything they can, as proven again today, to maintain subsidies for biomass which, according to VP Timmerman’s top Cabinet official Diederik Samsom, can be incinerated ‘sustainably’. We need policymakers to go back to the beginning and enact real reforms. We want a policy based on science, not appeasing the biomass and forest industries.”