EU climate plan bets on non-existent technology to reduce emissions

For immediate release

Europe will significantly increase the amount of forest wood it burns for renewable energy – which actually emits more CO2 than fossil fuels per unit of energy produced – while relying on future deployment of currently non-existent technology to remove carbon pollution from the air, according to a new analysis of modeling underpinning key EU climate legislation. The analysis, published by the NGO Partnership for Policy Integrity, analyzes the EU’s approach for achieving its legislative mandate of net zero emissions by 2050, and concludes that the approach is high risk and unlikely to succeed.

Achieving climate neutrality by 2050 will require an immediate and steep drop in greenhouse gas emissions and a large increase in carbon dioxide uptake from the atmosphere. In legislation set to be finalized next year, the EU has proposed a 2030 interim target for carbon uptake by forests and soils as a staging post to the 2050 net zero goal.  However, despite the acknowledged need for a large increase in CO2 uptake, the legislation’s proposed target of -310 million tonnes of CO2 uptake per year by 2030 is lower than land sector CO2 uptake in 2013. To compensate for this weak land sector goal, the proposal assumes the EU will deploy biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), a technology that effectively does not exist and that may never deliver negative emissions, to store hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 by 2050.

The weak land target is due in part to plans to double the amount of wood, energy crops and waste the EU burns for energy by 2050, and to increase forest biomass harvesting and combustion by 50 percent.  Currently, about half the wood harvested in the EU is burned for energy, and satellite analysis of European forests has revealed an abrupt increase in logging thought to be driven in part by harvesting for fuel. Use of forest biomass has increased steeply in recent years thanks to annual renewable energy subsidies that are today worth around €17 billion. Overharvesting has contributed to the majority of the EU’s forests being in poor condition.

The findings only emerged after PFPI analysed the modelling underpinning the legislative proposal. The role for “significant deployment of technology-based carbon removals” of CO2 from the atmosphere was mentioned in a single footnote of a legislative impact assessment, with the full amount of BECCS deployment only revealed in documents published previously.

“Most people don’t know that the EU’s climate proposal has essentially given up on rebuilding and restoring carbon in forests and is instead betting the farm on BECCS,” said Mary Booth, PFPI’s director and the author of the report. “It appears that policymakers are too timid to stand up to the forest and biomass industries, so are willing to sacrifice any hope of truly rebuilding carbon-rich forest ecosystems in favour of continuing to log forests for fuel. There’s still time to prioritize forest restoration and avoid locking in climate failure, but it’s going to take real courage.”

Ariel Brunner, Senior Head of Policy at BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, said “EU climate policy has a hole in the middle. It keeps being based on simply ignoring emissions from burning biomass. Sadly, neither the atmosphere nor biodiversity accept creative accounting. We cannot stop a real world crisis by being clever in playing the numbers. We need to actually change from burning forests to restoring them.”

Across Europe, alarm about the EU’s dependence on burning wood and the condition of forests is increasing. Last week saw protests against burning forest wood for energy outside the Parliament building in Brussels as NGOs called for removing forest biomass from the Renewable Energy Directive. Last month, the world’s largest wood-burning plant was delisted from a leading energy index due to fundamental sustainability concerns. The scientific community is also increasingly speaking out against burning forests for fuel.

Dr. Mike Norton, a member of the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), was the lead author on a paper setting out how the large subsidies awarded to burning biomass pellets for electricity were failing to reduce emissions  for decades – even compared to coal. “The IPCC’s call for immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in emissions and COP26’s call to reverse deforestation by 2030 both reinforce the point that further incentivizing protecting and restoring forests would be more effective in taking CO2 out of the atmosphere by 2050 than burning them,” he said.

Young climate activists are particularly concerned with the EU climate plan’s hidden reliance on BECCS. Sommer Ackerman, who is with Fridays For Future’s Europe Beyond Burning campaign, said “The EU is again providing us with false solutions to the climate crisis and for our survival, this has to stop. If you look at the science, it is clear we need to drastically lower our emissions right away in reality, rather than on paper. Relying on BECCS condemns ecosystems and future generations to destruction.”

PFPI’s report can be downloaded here.

Partnership for Policy Integrity