MEPs have taken a brave and principled stand by calling for an end to forest biomass counting toward renewable energy targets; for the sake of our forests, nature, and a livable climate, the rest of the European Parliament must join them, write Michal Wiezik and Zoltan Kun.
Michal Wiezik is a Slovak MEP for the Renew group and a member of the ENVI committee. Zoltan Kun is head of conservation at the foundation WildEurope.
Achieving the EU’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 will require a massive effort to protect and restore forests that take CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Currently, however, a large part of the EU’s renewable energy comes from burning trees and other wood for fuel, which emits more CO2 per unit of energy than burning fossil fuels and releases forest carbon into the atmosphere – the opposite of what is needed if we are serious about addressing climate change.
According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical service, burning wood provides about 40% of the EU’s renewable energy. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) says about half of this wood is “primary woody biomass,” meaning sourced directly from forests (“forest” biomass), and half is “secondary” woody biomass, meaning wood industry residues and post-consumer wood.
Due to incentives for renewable energy, wood-burning has nearly tripled since 1990. The majority of wood counted toward renewable energy targets is burned for residential heating, though it is wood-burning power plants that receive the billions in publicly funded renewable energy subsidies under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED).
In September, MEPs will vote on proposed reforms to the RED’s biomass provisions.
The environment committee has approved an amendment that takes most forest biomass out of the RED as a form of renewable energy. If adopted in the final package, this reform would not stop people from burning wood – it would simply stop counting energy from burning most forest biomass toward renewable energy targets and would liberate billions in subsidies each year for clean, zero-emissions renewable energy and energy efficiency measures that could help decrease energy poverty.
The environment committee amendment still allows burning secondary biomass materials, like sawdust and bark from sawmills, to qualify as renewable energy under the RED and receive subsidies.
The amendment states that the Parliament should pass an implementing act to apply the cascading principle for biomass so it can be reused for as long as possible. At the end of a product’s life, if it can’t be further recycled, it can be burned for energy.
Unsurprisingly, the biomass industry opposes the environment committee’s recommendation to stop counting forest biomass combustion as renewable energy.
Both the North American wood pellet industry and the Sweden-based World Bioenergy Association (WBA), which represents over 50 national and international trade bodies for an industry worth $8.7 billion, have been lobbying intensively.
The WBA argues that using logging residues is a “wise and sustainable practice, and is widely accepted by forestry and climate experts.”
They seem to want people to believe that forest biomass is nothing more than just scraps left over from logging. That’s not true. But even if it were true that forest biomass was just logging residues, burning it would harm forests and the climate.
Critically, the JRC’s study in 2021 found that only limited removal of “fine woody debris” (low-diameter branches, leaves, needles, etc) limits risks to forests and climate.
Meanwhile, harvesting and burning “coarse woody debris” – that is, logs, stumps, and other large chunks of wood left over after logging – is a “high risk” for biodiversity and climate.
That means burning this material increases net CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuels for decades to even centuries.
Stripping coarse woody debris from a logging site harms the ecosystem in other ways, destroying habitat, degrading biodiversity, depleting soil carbon, and even interfering with forest regeneration.
Biomass industry claims about primarily using “forestry residues” are misleading, too, because the term has no fixed meaning, encompassing everything from tree trunks to twigs.
Indeed, the JRC found that “stemwood” makes up about half of the forest biomass burned in the EU. More recently, the use of logs as biomass was well documented in a report surveying several biomass and wood pellet plants across the EU.
The WBA says that because biomass is low-value, it doesn’t drive harvesting decisions. But because biomass gets public subsidies, this arguably does change the calculus of whether to log and how much wood to extract.
Based on Eurostat data, logging for biomass fuel is increasing across Europe. But most importantly, “low value” considers only the economic value and not the climate and biodiversity value of trees.
Arguing about what constitutes true “residues” is pointless anyway when it is impossible to verify what is burned, as wood is often simply chipped at the logging site and then trucked to a biomass power plant.
The reality is that forest carbon is going up smokestacks in the name of renewable energy, and whether it’s from twigs, branches, or logs, providing incentives to send more forest carbon into the atmosphere is the opposite of what we need to do to address climate change.
The WBA makes predictable statements about logging “sustainably.” But if the industry is so sustainable, why are some of Europe’s biggest bioenergy users and producers, like Finland and Estonia, now losing their land carbon sinks?
In both cases, intensive logging has turned the land sector from a sink for CO2 into a source. In Finland, government researchers definitively identified tree harvesting for biomass as a main driver of this process.
As the WBA states, forest biomass makes up less than 20% of the EU’s renewable energy. In fact, forest biomass constitutes only about 3% of total energy in the EU, well within the margin that could be saved with efficiency measures.
That amount can and must be replaced with truly clean, low-carbon renewable energy, which is likely a trade-off many people would embrace – the chance to preserve and restore forests for climate and nature at the cost of using a little less energy.
MEPs on the environment committee have taken a brave and principled stand by calling for an end to forest biomass, counting toward renewable energy targets.
For the sake of our forests, nature, and a livable climate, the rest of the European Parliament must join them.