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European Parliament Takes First Step to Limit Forest Biomass Energy in the Renewable Energy Directive

EP Takes First Step to Limit Forest Biomass Energy in the Renewable Energy Directive
NGOs Call on EU Leaders to Strengthen Provisions in Trilogue

Wednesday, 14 September

(Strasbourg) Environmental groups expressed grave concerns that measures adopted today by the European Parliament (EP) do not go far enough to limit the use of forest biomass in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED).

“While the European Parliament voted to take a first step towards phasing out primary woody biomass (PWB, wood taken directly from forests) from the Renewable Energy Directive, we are deeply disappointed that Parliament did not follow the science and stop incentivising burning trees for energy entirely,” said Delia Villagrasa, speaking on behalf of the Forests out of RED coalition. “However, even with all these drawbacks in the vote, the writing is on the wall for primary woody biomass: it will, sooner rather than later, be phased out, opening the way for cleaner, real renewable energy that helps the climate, human health, and biodiversity.”

As part of a compromise that was forged by the three leading political groups, the EP voted on a package of amendments. Key results on forest biomass in the final deal include:

–       Subsidies:  PWB will not be subsidised if it falls under the new definition though there are important loopholes, particularly for electricity-only plants. All other wood (secondary woody biomass, meaning mill residues and post-consumer wood), plus forest wood that is not included in the EP’s new definition of  PWB, can continue to receive subsidies.

–       Cap and phase-down: the cap for PWB starts at a level corresponding to average use between 2017-2022. As 2022 use is likely to be very high, this will push up the baseline. There will be a phase-down of use of PWB, but there is no definition of the reduction trajectory in use to 2030, and the EC will conduct a new assessment of the phasedown, which will likely delay its implementation.

–       Definition of “primary woody biomass”: loopholes in the definition of PWB for forests affected by pests, forests logged for fire prevention, and forests affected by natural disasters, lead to a large amount of PWB still being eligible for use for energy under the RED.

–       Cascading principle: this highly important principle, which would ensure that wood is used first for products before disposal or energy, has been weakened in terms of its implementation, leaving member states in charge.

–  Limits on logging old growth and primary forests for biomass. A proposal by the European Commission to put wood sourced from certain old-growth, carbon-rich and high-biodiversity forests off-limits for eligibility under the RED was retained.

NGOs are calling on the European Parliament, Council, and Commission to clarify and strengthen the biomass provisions in Trilogue this autumn.

“The definition of “primary woody biomass” exempts far too many categories of forest wood,” said Dr. Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity. “Perversely, rather than reducing burning forest biomass, as MEPs who supported it intended, the large number of loopholes in the definition mean it could lead to an increase in burning trees, contributing to even more climate and biodiversity destruction. It is critically important that these loopholes are corrected during the Trilogue.”

“These provisions, particularly the cap and phase-down, are too vague and will be difficult to enforce,” said Augustyn Mikos, Workshop for All Beings (Poland). “Member states require clear deadlines and targets, and these must be defined as soon as possible. Further, this leaves open the question of whether the phasedown will be 1% or 100%. There needs to be a firm and quantified commitment to reduce forest biomass use in the RED to zero as fast as possible.”

Currently, more than half of the wood harvested in Europe is burned for heat and electricity, with this energy counting toward the EU’s renewable energy targets. Lucrative renewable energy subsidies funded by taxpayers have caused wood burning to soar, and emissions along with it. Carbon dioxide emissions from burning woody biomass in the EU are now over 400 million metric tons per year — equivalent to the total reported emissions from Poland or Italy. Logging for biomass is causing certain EU member states to lose their land carbon sinks. While European Commission scientists have warned that burning wood increases emissions compared to fossil fuels for decades to centuries, official EU policy has continued to encourage logging and burning forests for fuel.

“This file shows, once again, that the people in power would still rather save and safeguard extractive, ever-expanding and carbon-intensive industries – and the political loopholes that legitimise them – over safeguarding people, planet and real climate solutions,” said Lina Burnelius, of Swedish NGO Protect the Forest.

“These amendments represent at best a first step toward what is needed to limit the damage caused to forests in Europe and abroad by the RED’s perverse incentives,” said Dr. Fenna Swart, Director of the Clean Air Committee (Comite Schone Lucht) NL. “The EU is losing its forest carbon sink under current levels of logging. We cannot afford to wait years before the phase-down goes into effect.”

While hundreds of scientists, NGOs, and more than 250,000 citizens petitioned the EP to stop treating wood-burning as “renewable energy,” they were up against well-funded opposition from the biomass industry, which gets about €17 billion a year in renewable energy subsidies — all funded by EU citizens.

“We have to start making wiser choices about where we invest our renewable energy euros,”  said Liina Steinberg, Coordinator, Save Estonia’s Forests. “There is simply no justification to keep paying energy companies to burn forests, our best allies in the climate crisis. Burning forest biomass causes 20 times more CO2 emissions than the terrible forest fires we saw this summer in the EU – every year.”

“Unless these provisions are strengthened and implemented as soon as possible, this will just be business as usual,” said Kenneth Richter, bioenergy policy officer for Birdlife and NRDC. “We cannot afford to wait another ten years to fix the problems in the RED. We need to move forward with real emissions reductions now to achieve climate goals, and protect our forests and the biodiversity that they hold.”

“These new rules are vague, riddled with loopholes, and delay any real action for years,” said Bente Hessellund Andersen, NOAH (Denmark). “Unless these problems are addressed during the Trilogue, it will be too little, too late.”

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Partnership for Policy Integrity