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The EU must stop burning trees for renewable energy

Mary S. Booth is the director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity. 

On September 13, a vote in the European Parliament will help determine the future of our forests, as well as the European Union’s ability to reduce rising carbon emissions that are driving record drought, flooding and fires. The topic at hand? Whether burning trees and other forest wood should continue to count as “renewable” energy in the EU.  

Few realize that the majority of renewable energy the EU counts toward its legislated targets is from burning wood, which, per unit energy, emits more carbon pollution at the smokestack than burning coal. Simply put, burning wood is undermining the EU’s climate and nature restoration goals set out in its Biodiversity Strategy. And this must stop now. 

The science is clear. As combustion emits carbon dioxide faster than trees regrow, European Commission scientists have warned that burning forest biomass “can lead to substantially reduced or even negative greenhouse gas savings compared to the use of fossil fuels” for “20 to 50 years or even up to centuries.”  

They’ve also drawn attention to the fact that “sustainable” harvesting — as in “ensuring that the harvest level stays below the growth rate of the forest” — “is not sufficient to ensure climate change mitigation.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change likewise warns that biomass shouldn’t be considered carbon neutral. 

Yet, increasing renewable energy targets and accompanying subsidies mean that wood burning has soared, and emissions along with it: Carbon dioxide emissions from burning woody biomass in the EU are now over 400 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of adding the emissions of another Poland or Italy. Or, to put it another way, as bad as the fires in Europe have been this summer, burning wood for energy emits around 20 times more carbon dioxide per year. But still, official EU policy assigns biomass a value of “zero” emissions, just like wind and solar. 

Adding to the harm, logging forests for fuel destroys them and degrades the forest carbon sink, as recently befell two countries: Finland, where government researchers said tree harvesting for energy was to blame, and Estonia, where more than half of harvested wood is now burned for energy, much of it in other countries that import “zero” carbon wood pellets made from Estonian forests.  Loss of the carbon sink in these heavily forested countries is a very bad sign.

So, the question remains, why would the EU continue to subsidize and promote a renewable energy technology that makes climate change worse? 

The policy itself is a holdover from when much of the fuel for biomass power plants came from mill wastes — even though, somewhat incredibly, the EU has always counted residential wood burning toward renewable energy targets, despite the fact that it’s the source of more than 50 percent of particulate pollution in the EU, contributing to the premature deaths of more than 1,000 citizens per day.

Today, with wood fuel consumption soaring due to aggressive renewable energy targets, more than half of the wood burned for energy in the EU is sourced directly from forests — and this isn’t even just twigs and leftovers from logging but, according to abundant photographic evidence, the trees themselves.  

Driving all this, of course, are bioenergy subsidies to the tune of about €17 billion a year — all funded by EU citizens. This flood of money has disproportionately benefited some, such as the CEO of Graanul Invest, a large wood pellet company in Estonia, who is now one of the country’s richest men. 

In response, the Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) has now approved an amendment to remove primary woody biomass, or “forest biomass — meaning wood sourced directly from forests — from the Renewable Energy Directive. According to the amendment, secondary woody biomass — meaning wood residues from mills and post-consumer waste — would still continue to count as renewable energy, and nothing about the policy change would stop people from burning forest wood either — it would just stop counting toward targets, freeing up billions that could be allocated toward truly clean energy.  

But the biomass and wood pellet industry is eager to keep subsidies flowing, and pulling out all the stops in a crescendo of lobbying to block the proposed reforms. 

Pellet companies importing to the EU are represented by the United States Industrial Pellet Association, which weighed in to block a proposal that would stop logging the world’s last ancient forests for biomass. And the World Bioenergy Association (WBA) has been publishing a steady stream of paid content in outlets like the Financial TimesPOLITICO, and Euractiv in which they make some truly extraordinary claims.   

NGOs and scientists have repeatedly rebutted these claims. However, one in particular deserves attention. In a letter to MEPs, the WBA claims that “20% of renewable energy supply for Europe is provided from primary biomass . . . equivalent to all energy produced by windmills and photovoltaic systems in Europe combined.”  

This is misleading. 

Burning biomass is extremely inefficient, so it takes a disproportionate amount of energy input to generate “useful” output. So, yes, while forest biomass does provide about 20 percent of the EU’s renewable energy on an input basis — meaning the energy inherent in the fuel — in terms of useful energy output, wind and solar produce far more energy than forest biomass.

The fact that 20 percent of renewable energy inputs comes from forest biomass is good news, however, as the much lower amount of energy that is actually produced means it can be replaced with truly clean sources relatively easily. For example, it’s shocking to see that many in the EU still depend on burning wood for heating but are locked into energy poverty when member countries continue to subsidize biomass instead of clean alternatives like heat pumps and solar.  

EU forests desperately need a break.  The bloc’s Biodiversity Strategy calls for forest restoration and “bringing nature back into our lives” — and that all looks great on paper. But if the EU continues to pay people to log and burn forests, we’ll know where their real priorities lie.



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