Reversing damaging incentives to burn wood for heat and power is crucial if the EU wants to remain a leader on climate and biodiversity, argue Annika Lund Gade and Peter de Jong.
The European Commission has signalled that it will be reviewing the role of wood as a form of renewable energy, both as part of the biodiversity strategy and as part of the reopening of the renewable energy directive.
This is welcome since, as the European Science Academies have frequently highlighted, “serious mismatches exist between science and policy in bioenergy”.
Denmark and the Netherlands are among the largest importers of wood pellets in Europe and there is a lively debate in both countries around how to reduce dependence on wood burning, based on the evidence both that burning wood for heat and power is highly likely to increase atmospheric concentrations of CO2 over decades and also that increased harvesting contributes to biodiversity loss and increased air pollution.
The costs of these impacts are not taken into account in assessing the most efficient use of public subsidies for renewable energy. And subsidies for wood burning in the 14 largest EU countries plus the UK already amount to around €6.5 billion per year.
Last year, Denmark imported over 3 million metric tonnes of wood pellets from European countries, as well as from forests as far afield as the US, Russia and Canada. It caused a national scandal when it was reported that Denmark even “burns trees from the Amazon to help the climate”.
The vast majority of this wood is used to generate heat. Last year the Danish parliament passed a climate law legislating, in effect, for an admirable 70% cut to emissions by 2030 and mandating the production of sector-specific climate action plans.
There is no point in pretending that meeting this target will be easy – but there is also no point in pretending that wood is a low carbon energy source just in order to meet a target more easily.
Wood emits more CO2 per MWh even than coal – as noted by the IPCC – which is why most environmentalists and scientists think that it takes several decades for plant regrowth to reabsorb the carbon emitted “in one pulse” from wood burning.
This is obviously way too long to hit the targets of the Paris Agreement. So, it makes very little sense that most forest biomass is considered a ‘carbon-neutral’ energy source.
This is why Green Transition Demark and five other NGOs, including WWF Denmark, have been calling on the Danish government to set a clear phase-out date for wood burning.
We are pleased to see a Europe-wide petition calling for the end of all subsidies to forest wood-burning gaining momentum, and over 3,000 signatures to date.
This chimes with the recommendations of the Dutch Social and Economic Council (which consists of trade unions, employer organisations, and NGOs) that advises the Dutch government and to which one of the present authors, Peter de Jong, has contributed.
Earlier this year, the SEC called for a complete phase-out of wood burning for power, heat and road transport as soon as possible. This is important, as the Netherlands is now the EU member state with the fastest growth of wood pellet imports: 1.2 million metric tonnes in 2019 and forecast to more than double in 2020.
A lot is made of strict ‘sustainability criteria’ being attached to forest harvesting for wood pellets but – quite frankly – these criteria both at the EU and the member state level (where they differ) have failed to curb the huge growth in the global trade in wood pellets.
What counts as a ‘forest residue’, for example, remains too vague to prevent the wood pellet industry continuing to harvest whole trees.
Coupled to the huge carbon accounting loophole (via which emitting countries can avoid counting the emissions generated from wood burning) and large subsidies and tax breaks to the industry and you can see why a forest bioenergy industry has grown so large in little over a decade.
Unfortunately, proposals this month for updated criteria in Denmark are very disappointing – but it is good to see that the three parties providing parliamentary support to the minority Social Democratic government (the Socialist People’s Party, The Red-Green Alliance and the Social Liberal Party, to which Margrethe Vestager belongs) have all backed a biomass phase-out.
And there is real political momentum building in civil society for a genuine plan to wean Denmark off wood burning as quickly as feasible.
In the Hague, we wait to see exactly how the government will implement the advice but we have to stress that simply tightening ‘sustainability criteria’ will not be enough to stem the tide of unsustainable biomass into the Netherlands and cap the growth of this huge industry.
Likewise, it will not be sufficient simply to tighten the ‘sustainability criteria’ at EU level when the relevant articles of the renewable energy directive are re-opened next year.
It is to be remembered that the Commission’s own scientific advisers on biomass energy, Forest Research, stated in 2018 that:
“Unless appropriate policy measures are taken to support sustainable bioenergy supply (in terms of impacts on GHG emissions), particularly in the case of forest bioenergy supply, a significant increase in bioenergy use in the EU is likely to lead to a net increase, rather than decrease, in GHG emissions being contributed from bioenergy sources.”
With coal-phase outs in place in many European countries, there remains a serious risk that a heightened target for renewable energy across the EU will simply end up incentivising more wood burning.
This is precisely what has just led the South Korean solar sector to sue its own government, tired as it is of seeing old coal power plants grabbing the majority of renewable energy certificates.
At the last count, there were 67 old coal power plants in Europe considering switching to wood burning. This cannot be allowed to happen. Our view is that it is time to stop treating all forest biomass as a carbon neutral fuel.