EU Sustainable Finance Taxonomy: Burning Trees Isn’t Green

MARCH 9, 2020

Mary Booth, Director, Partnership for Policy Integrity

Kelsey Perlman, Forest and Climate Campaigner, Fern

Independent Finance Experts Say EU Biomass Rules Could Increase Greenhouse Gas Emissions; Tree-burning Not a Green Investment


In a rebuke to the European Union’s increasing reliance on burning forest wood for renewable energy, a group of technical experts has recommended limiting biomass that can qualify under the EU’s new Sustainable Finance Taxonomy to a subset of mostly waste-derived biomass fuels, rather than the unlimited use of trees allowed under the EU’s renewable energy law. The European Commission now has to decide whether to accept the recommendations, which will be used as screening criteria for “green” investments of hundreds of billions of euros in the coming years.

The EU treats burning trees for heat and power as zero-carbon, fully renewable energy in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which specifies the technologies that member states can subsidize and count toward renewable energy targets. However as eminent scientists have made clear, burning wood for energy can increase emissions for decades to centuries even compared to coal, because biomass power plants emit more greenhouse gases per unit energy than fossil-fueled plants, and because trees take a long time to grow back. Wood burned in the EU is increasingly made up of wood pellets and other wood fuels sourced by clear-cutting forests, and The European Academies Science Advisory Council itself has warned that harvesting trees for energy is harming forests and undermining efforts to control global warming. In 2019, plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the European Court of Justice arguing that the sustainability criteria for forest biomass harvesting in the RED II, which come into effect in 2021, pose a serious threat to forests and the climate, and asking the court to declassify energy from forest wood as “renewable.”

The Sustainable Finance Taxonomy recommendations warn that biomass “can deliver mitigation benefits, but if done incorrectly can have no net positive impact or even a negative impact.” The document therefore recommends that biomass qualifying under the taxonomy be restricted to “advanced bioenergy” feedstocks listed in Annex IX of the RED II, a list that includes municipal biowastes, straw, manure, stripped corn cobs, nut shells, and mill residues including bark, sawdust, and black liquor. Wood sourced directly from forests is restricted to pre-commercial forest thinnings and “other ligno-cellulosic material except saw logs and veneer logs,” in contrast with the unrestricted use of trees as fuel for heat and power projects under the RED II.

Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a US-based environmental organization that coordinated the bioenergy lawsuit against the EU, commented on the recommended guidelines. “It’s extremely significant that the Sustainable Finance Taxonomy recognizes the RED II biomass sustainability criteria will encourage bioenergy that harms forests and the climate, as this is what we argued when we filed the suit against the EU’s treatment of forest biomass as a ‘zero carbon’ fuel. However, the Taxonomy is still not strict enough, because it allows some forestry residues and trees to qualify for ‘green’ financing. An abundance of evidence shows burning forest biomass is not carbon neutral in a reasonable timeframe. If the EU is serious about achieving net zero emissions and avoiding climate catastrophe, they must eliminate all incentives for forest bioenergy and focus on restoring forests, not burning them for fuel.”

Kelsey Perlman, a forest and climate campaigner with the EU NGO Fern said, “The EU already allocates over 6.5 billion euros in renewable energy subsidies each year to burning biomass, but at what cost to the climate? Carbon dioxide emissions from burning trees and crops has more than doubled since 2000. Continuing this trend with ‘sustainable’ finance undermines the real climate action needed.”

The technical screening criteria for activities which substantially contribute to climate change mitigation or adaptation will be adopted by the end of 2020 and enter into application by the end of 2021.

Link to the final report on the Sustainable Finance Taxonomy:

Technical annex containing actual criteria:

Partnership for Policy Integrity