The false promise that burning forest wood can replace Russian fossil fuels

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Burning wood emits more carbon pollution per unit energy than burning fossil fuels, writes Karl Wagner. [Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock]

Using forest wood to replace Russian fossil fuel imports would not only be disastrous for the environment, it would also not be a credible energy alternative, writes Karl Wagner.

Karl Wagner is director for an NGO campaign to take forest biomass out of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive. A biologist by training, he has managed a number of campaigns including the WWF campaign on REACH. He also served as Director for External Relations for the Club of Rome International.

The panic and helplessness many Europeans feel about the gutting of Ukraine is profound. The nagging feeling of helplessness is worsened by the sheer number of accelerating crises: climate change, destruction of nature, resource depletion, social inequality, and our seeming inability to stop the deaths of millions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In retrospect, however, we were never actually helpless. Many of our current crises could have been avoided if policymakers and industry had not, for the last half-century, continuously ignored the fact that we live on a limited planet with limited resources, and had not downplayed evidence of global warming and biodiversity decline. Scientists and activists who tried to warn us have been sidelined, even as natural systems are collapsing.

Now as energy prices spike and we see the real threat of fuel shortages, some people want to double down on one of the most disastrous policies at the nexus of climate and ecosystem destruction: burning trees for so-called “carbon neutral” energy. ,

In reality, burning wood emits more carbon pollution per unit energy than burning fossil fuels, and as the European Commission’s own scientists acknowledge, burning wood emits CO2 quickly, while forests regrow slowly. This means that net CO2 emissions from burning trees exceed those from fossil fuels for decades to centuries. Despite these facts, many biomass companies claim biomass is carbon neutral – like  for instance Graanul Invest, a massive wood pellet company implicated in forest destruction in Estonia.

Burning wood in the EU emits over 300 million tonnes of carbon pollution each year, about the same as the total reported emissions of Spain, yet burning wood and other biomass is counted  as  “zero carbon” energy. Forest harvesting for fuel – a particularly ruthless practice of the modern biomass industry, which vacuums up nearly every scrap, leaving land naked and depleted – is in part responsible for more than 80% of assessed EU forest ecosystems being designated as in inadequate or bad condition. And as shown in a new report from the Forest Defenders Alliance, while the biomass industry often claims to mostly burn sawdust from mills, or branches left over from forest harvesting, in fact they are burning trees.

Using forest wood to replace fossil fuels isn’t even realistic. To put it in perspective: Europe already harvests around 75 % of the annual amount of forest growth, with some countries closer to 100%.  Although around half of harvested wood is burned for energy, this covers a mere 3% or so of Europe’s energy needs. Replacing 10% of the fossil fuels burned in the EU would require increasing wood burning by 160%, while replacing just 10% of even the fossil fuels imported from Russia would require increasing wood burning by about 60%.  Increasing logging to meet this demand would directly undermine the EU’s goals of increasing forest carbon uptake and restoring degraded ecosystems.

It’s also important to recognize that some of the member states that are the biggest proponents of biomass energy, such as Finland (whose policymakers are currently fighting reform of the EU’s biomass policies in Brussels), themselves import large amounts of wood from Russia, including for energy use. Cutting back on these imports is important – but this will be a bitter pill if this leads to more forest exploitation within the EU itself.

To be clear, many people today depend on burning wood for heating their homes. Energy shortages and price hikes may increase pressure on forests for those who have no other options.

But while some communities rely on wood heating, wood burning is the biggest source of the particulate pollution that already kills over 1,000 people in the EU every day. Wood burning is deadly. This isn’t the “clean” energy that Europeans think they’re paying for.

And they’re paying a lot.  While the EU counts all wood-burning – even the most polluting residential burners – as “renewable energy,” the lion’s share of the approximately €17 billion paid out annually in renewable energy subsidies for biomass goes to power plant operators. That is funding that could instead be allocated to true zero-emissions renewable energy and forest restoration – two approaches that, unlike burning forest wood, actually do deliver climate mitigation.

It’s not surprising to see the biomass industry use the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to promote logging forests for fuel.  But EU citizens and policymakers of conscience don’t have to fall for this. We’re not helpless – we always had the choice to follow the science. We can’t let the people who already profit from forest destruction use the war in Ukraine as an excuse to gut our forests further.

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