Climate-critical land carbon sink is rapidly declining, while harvesting and burning wood for biomass energy continues to grow
November 7, 2022
(Brussels) A new report released today by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) shows that the European Union is losing its forest and land carbon sinks at an alarming rate, and increased logging of forests for biomass fuel used to meet renewable energy targets is a major reason why.
Burning up the Carbon Sink reveals how the EU’s forest biomass policy is undermining climate, nature restoration, and air quality goals, using government data on biomass use and the current state of the forest and land carbon sink in EU member states. The report includes timely recommendations for EU leaders who will be negotiating reforms to the biomass policies in the Trilogue on the Renewable Energy Directive (RED III).
Among the report’s key findings:
- EU policies that incentivize biomass energy as ‘zero carbon’ and ‘renewable’ have driven a steep increase in use. Biomass energy consumption has more than doubled across the EU since 1990, with most of this increase occurring since 2002, after the EU issued its first directive including biomass as renewable energy.
- Most of the biomass counted as renewable energy comes from wood, much of it sourced directly from forests. Burning solid biomass for heat and power accounted for 40% of the EU’s renewable energy in 2020, but useful energy produced was lower.
- Current wood harvesting levels are degrading the EU’s land sink. The EU lost about a quarter of its annual carbon uptake in the land sector between 2002 and 2020. Increased logging for biomass fuel is responsible for much of this loss, since production of harvested wood products has stayed roughly constant since 1990.
- Most member states have experienced steep declines in their forest and land carbon sinks since 2002, or have lost them altogether. These include Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Portugal, and Slovenia. Some member states (particularly Belgium, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands) import wood pellets from other countries where damaging, and often illegal, forest harvesting is occurring.
- At current rates of decline, most states will fail to reach their 2030 land sink targets, putting climate targets and the goal of ‘net zero’ carbon emissions out of reach. To achieve climate stability, the EU has set targets for increased carbon storage in forests and other lands. Burning forest biomass increases carbon emissions, while accelerating harvesting is degrading forests’ capacity to absorb and store additional carbon.
- Biomass burning will put achieving cleaner air out of reach. As the EU prepares to revise the Air Quality Directive, a Commission impact assessment has found that compliance with World Health Organization standards would save hundreds of thousands of lives per year and yield astonishingly large net benefits of €38 to €123 billion annually for health and the environment. However, the study is clear that such benefits will not occur without significantly reducing biomass burning.
“The inescapable conclusion of this research is that many member states, and the EU as a whole, will fail to meet their climate, nature, and air quality targets unless European leaders reform renewable energy policies that are driving forest degradation,” said PFPI’s director Dr. Mary Booth, the report’s author.
In September, the European Parliament voted on modest reforms to EU’s biomass policy, including recommending a phase-down of primary woody biomass sourced directly from forests. The report urges further action on the RED III biomass rules when negotiators from the European Council, Commission and Parliament meet in Trilogue:
- Stop counting burning forest biomass toward renewable energy targets, with a swift rampdown by 2027
- End subsidies for burning forest biomass for energy production, both heat and electricity.
- Exclude biomass from primary forests, old-growth forests, and wetlands from qualifying toward renewable energy targets
- Ensure the definition of primary woody biomass is science-based and consistent with international norms, to streamline enforcement and give clear direction to investors.
“Forest degradation, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and air pollution from burning forest wood will only worsen if the EU’s renewable energy target increases to 45% by 2030 without significant biomass policy reform,” Booth continued. “EU policymakers must act now to eliminate perverse incentives that are undermining the EU’s health and environmental goals.”
The report contains detailed charts and information for each of the member states.
The Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) uses science, litigation, policy analysis and strategic communications to promote policies that protect climate, ecosystems, and people. For more information go to www.pfpi.net or https://forestdefenders.eu/