April 19. 2024. 9:22

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EU’s ‘exception’ from biomass sustainability rules raises eyebrows

The EU’s biomass sustainability rules will apply more loosely in overseas territories like French Guiana to promote economic development there, but the exception inserted in the bloc’s Renewable Energy Directive will lead to increased deforestation, environmentalists say.

EU legislators reached an agreement last week (30 March) on union-wide renewable energy targets for 2030, including biomass.

The EU highly regulates biomass use and prohibits, for example, the logging of primary forests, protected areas and areas rich in biodiversity.

But the EU’s outermost regions – Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique, Mayotte, Saint-Martin, Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands – benefit from an exception.

The exemption applies if the biomass is used for electricity generation, heating or cooling purposes to ensure “access to safe and secure energy, ” provided efforts are made to align with the sustainability criteria set out in the renewables directive.

‘Guianese exception’

In France, the exception is particularly fitting for the activities of the European spaceport – the Guiana Space Centre (CSG).

For months, environmental NGOs have warned against plans to ramp up biofuel production in Guiana, saying it will harm the Amazon rainforest and the climate.

“Cutting down trees reduces carbon sinks and increases the carbon debt of a territory,” said Marine Calmet, a lawyer and activist at Maiouri Nature Guyane, a local association spearheading the fight against the exception inserted in the Renewable Energy Directive.

Indeed, planting new trees to offset the CO2 emitted during biofuels burning can take years, even decades, Calmet told EURACTIV.

“This would be a huge legal loophole, which would nullify the ambition of the directive to prohibit the transformation of primary forests or forests with high biodiversity into plantations for energy purposes,” the association argued in a press release.

France’s biofuels ambitions in Guiana are supported by the government’s multi-annual energy programme, which envisages that plantations for energy purposes there will represent 160,000 tonnes in 2030, up from 70,000 tonnes in 2023.

According to Calmet, this objective, taken together with the exception, would create a “call for air for the positioning of more and more industrialists on the territory.”

Economic development vs climate protection ?

But French MEP Christophe Grudler, who represented the centrist Renew Europe group in the negotiations disagrees and said the derogation helps meet the development needs of Guiana, which is currently one of the poorest regions of France.

This was confirmed by Thibault Lechat-Vega, vice-president of the Territorial Collectivity of French Guiana, who says the primary reason for the derogation is related to economic development.

“And yes, we have to deforest to build housing, equipment, agriculture,” he said on Twitter in January.

According to the French Agency for Ecological Transition (ADEME), the prospects for population growth are such that the needs for agriculture alone will represent 17,000 additional hectares of land between 2023 and 2040, i.e. more than half the current capacity.

However, for now, the wood residues from agricultural clearing are not being exploited because there is no industry, like paper, to use it.

It would therefore be “counterproductive not to use them to produce electricity”, according to Grudler.

For Calmet, all this is a “dangerous legal blur. We must avoid creating conditions in which the Amazonian forest is condemned because of a short-term and climatically destructive investment race”.

In response, the French MEP said he had no lessons to learn from NGOs who “remake the world from Paris”, those whom Lechat-Vegat called the “green neo-colonialists”.

The subject is “epidermic”, admitted Calmet as France and the EU juggle between protecting forests and economic development objectives.

In any case, Grudler points out that the derogation is only temporary, while the market is being built up.

To benefit from the exception, France must apply to the Commission, which, according to Calmet, “will be very vigilant about the criteria for setting up the derogation”.

Environmental groups are now worried that France’s requested timeframe for the exception will be accepted as Paris has asked for the derogation to apply until 2047.