March 4. 2024. 10:11

The Daily

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EU countries must stop undermining biomass policy reform

As final negotiations on the Renewable Energy Directive are approaching, the risk is that EU policymakers will continue to treat forest wood burning as “zero-carbon” renewable energy and reward it with billions in subsidies, writes Mary S. Booth.

Just days following the publication of the IPCC’s most frightening climate report yet, EU policymakers will decide whether the EU will continue its reliance on burning trees and other forest biomass for “renewable energy” – a practice that the EU’s own scientists have concluded degrades forests and increases greenhouse gas emissions, undermining efforts to mitigate the oncoming climate disaster.

Burning forest wood increases CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuels and destroys forests that are critical for taking carbon out of the air and for providing habitat.

Around half the wood logged in the EU is burned for energy, and as biomass use has increased, predicted effects are emerging – including weakening and even total loss of the forest carbon sink in some EU member states.

Yet despite the IPCC’s increasingly frantic calls to protect and restore forests and reduce energy emissions to net zero as fast as possible, some EU policymakers appear ready to undermine long-awaited reforms to biomass policy in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED), continuing to treat burning forest wood (which emits more carbon pollution than coal) as “zero-carbon” renewable energy and rewarding it with billions in subsidies.

This will ensure that renewable energy in the EU continues to add net CO2 to the atmosphere and continues to destroy forests.

The final talks among the European Parliament, Commission, and Council on biomass policy are supposed to conclude on March 29th.

Being negotiated is a fiendishly complex set of criteria, made even more difficult to understand because of sometimes subtle differences between legislative proposals from each body.

We compared the policy options in terms of how well they protect forests and climate, how much forest biomass they’d disqualify from counting toward the EU’s renewable energy targets, and whether they are in line with what the new IPCC report says is required to avoid climate breakdown.

The results are beyond sobering, considering that biomass provides the majority of the energy counted as renewable in the EU.

The “good” proposals from the Parliament and the Commission are still not very protective. The Parliament’s proposal comes closest to disqualifying forest biomass that increases carbon pollution for decades to centuries.

The Commission proposal takes less forest biomass off the table but is still a step in the right direction.

Both proposals would disqualify wood from precious ancient forests from qualifying under the RED, which is essential, as logging of old-growth and primary forests is increasing in Europe and around the world as demand for wood pellets grows.

Critically, both the Parliament and Commission proposals would require that use of forest biomass not undermine the ability of member states’ forests to act as “carbon sinks,” (meaning the forests take more carbon out of the air than they emit).

This is a commonsense requirement, especially since the EU has just adopted rules that mandate increased carbon uptake by forests!

These provisions make the Parliament and Commission proposals barely compatible with the requirements for avoiding climate collapse as outlined in the new IPCC report.

But Council members seem determined to gut the most meaningful provisions in the Parliament and Commission proposals.

The Council wants to remove protections for ancient forests; it wants essentially all trees and other forest wood to continue to count as renewable energy.

They are even threatening to remove the language that protects member state forest carbon sinks from excessive biomass harvesting.

The Council’s insistence that the status quo is fine and that intensive biomass harvesting doesn’t harm forests and the climate (despite a torrent of evidence to the contrary) looks a lot like climate change denial.

It’s hard to know what the Energy Ministers think they are accomplishing with this stance. They certainly are not prioritising protecting forests or reducing emissions.

Their position doesn’t make fiscal sense, either, because their position of allowing unlimited tree-burning to continue forces EU citizens to continue shelling out billions in extra taxes for biomass subsidies that could instead provide durable clean energy infrastructure like heat pumps and solar.

It’s also not fiscally responsible to burn up the forest carbon sink, as Finland may soon discover. That country over-logged – in large part due to demand for wood fuel – and now may have to pay up to €7 billion in fines for losing its carbon sink.

It also can’t be that pro-bioenergy policymakers think they are protecting the wood industry, because many wood products manufacturers are also extremely alarmed at how the subsidised biomass industry outcompetes them for wood and are calling for restrictions on burning wood for energy.

Maybe some of the Ministers are just ignorant of what the proposal would do, like Danish Climate Minister Lars Aagaard, who claims the proposal would “limit wood burning” when in reality it would simply limit the amount of energy from wood-burning that would be counted as “renewable” and receive subsidies.

Denmark has nearly lost its forest carbon sink and helped obliterate those of Estonia and Latvia by importing and burning wood pellets which led to those two countries losing their forest carbon sinks.

Has this climate minister not read the latest IPCC report, which calls for restoring and protecting forests so they can take carbon pollution out of the air? And what is his excuse for being so misinformed about the actual proposal being considered that he is willing to be quoted in the media making claims that are demonstrably wrong?

It’s not just Denmark’s representatives that have made misleading claims. Several countries signed on to a letter about the biomass reforms that was shocking in the number of false claims it contained (it was rebutted by scientists and NGOs).

One thing is certain: policymakers are constantly bombarded with misinformation from deep-pocketed forest and biomass industry lobbyists who seek to influence policymaking. Unfortunately, these efforts appear to be succeeding.

We wish honourable negotiators all the luck and perseverance in the world on Wednesday as they work to reform the EU’s biomass policy.

This isn’t a small matter – forests are at the heart of the EU’s nature and climate strategy. If they don’t succeed, it will be because of the Council.