Europe rapidly losing its forest carbon sink, study shows

“There is a clear link between biomass harvesting and land sink loss in some member states,” the report said. [Sergey Nemirovsky / Shutterstock]

The European Union is losing its forest carbon sink at an alarming rate, with harvesting for biomass fuel a key driver behind the loss, according to new research released on Monday (7 November).

EU member states have experienced steep declines in their forest and land carbon sinks since 2002, or have lost them altogether, according to research by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), a non-profit group.

To achieve climate neutrality by 2050, the EU has set targets for increased CO2 storage in forests, soils and other land carbon sinks. But at the current rates of decline, most EU countries will fail to reach their 2030 land sink targets, the report warns.

In Europe, forests are currently a net carbon sink because they take in more carbon dioxide than they emit. But the capacity of European forests to absorb CO2 has been shrinking over the years and needs to be restored, the European Commission admitted two years ago when it presented its climate target plan for 2030.

Based on official government data submitted to the EU and the United Nations, the PFPI found that the EU lost about a quarter of its annual land sector carbon sink between 2002 and 2020, due in large part to harvesting for energy.

“There is a clear link between biomass harvesting and land sink loss in some member states,” the report said. “Government researchers in Finland presented detailed statistics on energy use of wood and specifically identified roundwood burning as one driver for loss of the sink, while in Estonia, more than half the volume of wood harvested is being used for fuel or pellet production,” it added.

Overall use of solid biomass was 239% higher in 2020 than in 1990, according to the report, with use in the energy sector – heat and power production – increasing by more than 1,000% over that period, according to the official statistics compiled by PFPI.

The PFPI report is being launched on Monday as world leaders gather in Egypt for a UN climate summit where forestry is on the agenda. At the COP27 meeting, leaders will launch the Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership, an initiative aimed at scaling up action to protect, conserve and restore the world’s forests.

The European Union positions itself as a global leader in forest protection and tabled a regulation last year to reduce deforestation from the import of commodities such as soy, beef, palm oil or coffee.

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The European Parliament voted Tuesday (13 September) in favour of a regulation requiring companies to ensure products sold in the EU do not come from deforested or degraded land, a move hailed as a “ray of hope” by green campaigners.

EU’s renewable energy policy under the spotlight

However, the EU is not a role model at home, according to the PFPI research, which attributes the decline in land carbon sinks to Europe’s biomass policies, which count forest wood as a zero-carbon fuel under the EU’s renewable energy directive.

Biomass energy consumption more than doubled across the EU since 1990, with most of the increase occurring since 2002, after the EU issued its first directive including biomass as renewable energy, the report found.

According to the European Commission, biomass currently makes up nearly 60% of all renewable energy in the EU – more than wind and solar combined. Demand for biomass is only expected to grow in the coming years, despite there only being so much of it that can be produced sustainably, the Commission’s research department told EURACTIV last month.

In September, the European Parliament backed plans to end subsidies for biomass used in power plants and exclude most primary wood burning from the EU’s renewable energy targets.

But the PFPI said those changes will not affect residential wood burning, which contributes the largest share to renewables in heating. Moreover, EU countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, “have revised survey methods for counting residential wood-burning,” the report pointed out, saying this has resulted in “abrupt increases in reported biomass use” in these countries, which allowed them to achieve their renewable energy targets.

For the PFPI, this calls for an urgent rethink of EU biomass policies. “To achieve climate stability will require a much larger amount of carbon storage in forests, which will be impossible unless biomass harvesting is significantly reduced. This is the most important message of this report,” it said.

EU Parliament groups rally behind plans to end biomass subsidies

The three largest political groups in the European Parliament have backed proposals to end subsidies for biomass used in power plants and exclude primary wood burning from the EU’s renewable energy targets.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

Read more with EURACTIV


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