(This post has been edited since its initial publication so that a new graph could be added – Figure 1a).
Biomass energy is the bad apple in the EU’s renewable energy barrel. Burning wood emits more CO2 per unit energy than coal, and logging forests for fuel is destroying irreplaceable ecosystems and eroding the EU’s forest carbon sink, putting nature and climate restoration goals further and further out of reach. As the ugly truth about forest destruction and climate emissions emerges, logging forests for fuel is becoming increasingly controversial, which is why the biomass and wood pellet industry often claims they mostly burn sawdust and other industrial wood waste, not wood sourced directly from forests.
But we know that such claims are very often false. The Forest Defenders Alliance recently published a report, Future on Fire, showing a number of biomass and wood pellet plants in the EU that have a lot of stemwood piled up nearby. It’s clear that these facilities are using trees for fuel, despite what they claim.
Despite this visual evidence, we heard that certain Finnish policymakers were protesting that it couldn’t possibly be true that Finnish biomass plants burned trees. So we decided to do a bit more evidence-gathering about the use of trees for fuel in Finland.
To begin with, Finland is overwhelmingly dependent on burning wood for renewable energy, with energy input from solid biomass (mostly wood) more than 12 times the amount of energy input from wind (Figure 1). Other kinds of renewable energy that are more common elsewhere in the EU – solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, geothermal, tidal – are so low in Finland, they aren’t even visible when graphed with biomass. Solar is feasible in Finland… and there are new projects underway, but up to this point, the government has instead poured hundreds of millions in renewable energy subsidies each year into burning forest wood and “secondary” woody biomass – the sawdust and black liquor at Finland’s sawmills and papermills. In fact, in recent years, Finland has been the worst in the EU for allocating a large share of renewable energy subsidies to biomass (see p. 11 here).
Figure 1. Growth since 1990 in renewable energy in Finland by technology and fuel. The EU counts energy input toward renewable energy targets, thus actual useful energy yield from bioenergy is much lower than shown in graph. See endnote 3 at Future on Fire for data sources.
In fact, Finland is burning more wood for energy than it’s using to make products (Figure 1a).
Figure 1a. Government data show that Finland burns more wood than it uses for products.
Breaking out wood burning by use, we can see that the increase in wood burning has been at power plants, while residential use has stayed constant (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Use of fuelwood in for energy in Finland, 2000 – 2021(1,000 m3).
Finland has a lot of heating and power plants. Data reported to the government show
18 power stations (691 MW) utilise “forest fuelwood” as main fuel source
18 power stations (564 MW) utilise “Industrial wood residues” as main fuel source, “Forest fuelwood,” distillates, peat, or natural gas as a stand-by fuel
Some companies are forthright about burning trees. The website of one of the larger biomass plants in Finland, Vantaa Energia states, “The majority of the fuel at the Martinlaakso biopower plant is logging residue chips or stem chips.” The website of one of the two Finnish biomass facilities featured in our report – Alholmens Kraft in Jakobstad – also admits to using wood directly from forests: “Stumps are crushed either at the power plant or at an earlier stage in the supply chain. Wood that is not good for mass production is also included in the fuel mix.”
However, the database states that the Jakobstad plant burns Industrial wood residues – not forest wood. So this makes us wonder: do any of the other power plants listed as only using “Industrial wood residues” also burn wood directly from forests?
The big increase in wood-burning has been fuelled by wood sourced from forests – it’s not sawdust and other industrial wood wastes (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Source of wood burned in heating and power plants in Finland, 2000 – 2021 (1,000 m3).
A lot of that wood has been imported – including from Russia (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Use of imported wood by the forest industries versus heating and power plants, 2000 – 2021 (1,000 m3).
Yes… Finland has been importing Russian trees to burn for “renewable energy.” Now that those imports have stopped, this will put even more pressure on Finland’s forests.
Already, old-growth forests are being logged for energy. For instance, recent news stories show that 300 year old trees are being burned for central heating plants in Inari and Kuusamo.
Only 6 percent of Finnish forests are protected. Do Finns really want to see these last natural treasures go up in smoke?
Of course, the false claim that logging and burning wood can help mitigate climate change is what’s driving all this wood-burning. The Marin government says they want to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, but meanwhile, as Figure 5 shows, they’re not even on track to meet the minimal targets set by the EU for carbon uptake by forests and other lands. Just 12 years ago, Finnish forests and harvested wood products were sequestering close to 50 million tonnes of CO2 per year, but due to overlogging, more recently they are sequestering about half that (Figure 5). The loss in the carbon sink means that Finland will have a difficult time increasing the land carbon sink to meet the 2030 target (brown dot), or even complying with its forest reference level for 2025 (green dot). (For an explanation of the significance of the forest reference level and land sink targets to EU climate policy, see our 2021 report).
Figure 5. The loss of forest carbon uptake in Finland, and its effects on the land sink as a whole. Recall, negative numbers mean the category is a net sink for CO2.
Figure 5 clearly suggests where the blame lies for loss of the forest carbon sink. Since production of harvested wood products has stayed fairly constant, while use of wood for energy has dramatically increased over the same period (see Figures 1, 2, and 3), the overlogging that is driving the loss in Finland’s carbon sink is likely due to biomass harvesting for energy. Finland is literally liquidating its forests into the atmosphere.
The answer to all this is clear – Finland, like the rest of the EU, needs to protect and restore its forests to preserve nature and meet climate targets, not burn them for energy. Given that the EU is considering subsidizing landowners to preserve and grow forests, wouldn’t it be better to redirect the hundreds of millions of euro Finnish citizens spend each year on biomass subsidies toward forest restoration?