Forestry and carbon sinks: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Forests are key habitats for biodiversity and are also a vital tool in reducing global CO2 levels. [Anna Om / Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Forestry and climate change.

The complex role of forests in regulating the Earth’s climate is set to become one of the most contentious issues in the upcoming revision of Europe’s energy and climate laws.

With its forestry policy, the European Commission will be seeking to balance three objectives: drawing down climate-warming CO2 from the atmosphere, preserving natural habitats for biodiversity, and sourcing raw materials to replace fossil fuels used for energy.

“If you want to serve three purposes with one tree – which is biodiversity, carbon sink and bioenergy – you need three trees,” an EU official said at a press briefing last week. “We need more trees, to be very blunt.”

To achieve just that, the Commission is expected to present an EU Forest Strategy on Wednesday (14 July), which will include “a roadmap for planting at least 3 billion additional trees in the EU by 2030.”

“Tree planting is particularly beneficial in cities, while in rural areas it can work well with agroforestry, landscape features and increased carbon sequestration,” the EU executive said in its biodiversity strategy, presented in May last year.

The role of bioenergy is controversial though, because it requires trees to be felled and burned in power plants, where they immediately release CO2. According to environmentalists, this creates a “carbon debt” that can take decades to pay back as new trees are planted and suck an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.

For others, the cycle of planting and cutting trees is part of sustainable forest management practices which should be regarded as carbon neutral – or even carbon negative in cases where planted areas are expanding. And with climate change taking its toll on forestry ecosystems, the active management of forests will become all the more necessary, they argue.

Whichever path the European Commission chooses, it will likely meet with heavy criticism.

'Win-win or lose-lose': EU scientists highlight two-faced bioenergy policies

Around 14% of bioenergy used in Europe is of unknown origin, according to an EU report, which highlights the need to improve the tracing of wood burned for electricity production.

The ‘right biomass’

The executive’s climate chief, Frans Timmermans, has already nailed his colours to the mast, saying biomass will be necessary to help Europe meet its renewable energy targets.

“Without biomass, we’re not going to make it. We need biomass in the mix, but we need the right biomass in the mix,” he told EURACTIV in a recent interview.

According to Timmermans, biomass can be sourced from by-products of the wood industry, using material such as bark, sawdust, and tree tops, which are left on the ground after timber is harvested.

“In primal forests, if you maintain them, there’s always a lot of biomass that you can take out – you even help the forest by doing that. Or, in production forests, you never use 100% of a tree. There’s maybe close to 20% of the tree that you can’t use for construction or other industries,” he explained.

But there is concern about whether all the biomass used in Europe will fall under the Commission’s definition of what Timmermans calls “the right biomass.”

Only last week, Greenpeace released a report criticising Europe’s rules around what type of biomass is counted as contributing towards its renewable energy targets, saying these have led to the destruction and degradation of Estonian forests.

Environmental NGOs are calling for drastic changes to the sustainability criteria for biomass spelled out in the EU’s renewable energy directive, which is coming up for a revision on Wednesday. According to WWF, there needs to be meaningful restrictions on the role of bioenergy.

“Fighting the climate emergency without changing the EU’s biomass rules is like trying to bail out a boat with a hole in the bottom. To plug the gap, we must limit incentives under the renewable energy directive to fast-decaying wastes and residues with no other uses,” said Alex Mason, senior policy officer at WWF.

Scientists call on EU to 'correct' biomass carbon accounting rules

Europe’s academies of science have called on EU lawmakers to introduce a “radically new standard” in the bloc’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to ensure net carbon emissions from biomass power stations are “properly accounted for and declared”.

Meanwhile, the industry argues that the sustainability criteria for biomass under the renewable energy directive are still fit for purpose and should not be changed.

Reopening it is troublesome for the industry, especially as the current criteria, set up in 2018, is facing delays in being rolled out, said Giulia Laura Cancian, policy director at Bioenergy Europe, a trade organisation.

“If they remain as they are right now [in leaked draft legislation], they could cause disruptions in the market especially for small operators that will be confronted with impossible red tape and retroactive measures,” she warned.

Balancing economy and climate in forestry

The industry has also voiced concern about the forest strategy, also due to be released on Wednesday, that will decide the future of Europe’s forests.

Ideas contained in a leaked draft of the strategy promote a hierarchy that is biased against bioenergy, the industry says.

“Bioenergy was not perceived as one of the pieces of the puzzle that works in synergy with the rest of the forest sector,” Cancian told EURACTIV.

Worries are also being expressed in the European Parliament. In a letter to the European Commission, the biggest parliamentary group, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), criticised the draft strategy, warning of an imbalance between forestry’s role in tackling climate change and the wider economic function of forests, which provide jobs in rural areas.

The draft strategy undermines sustainable forest management, the MEPs warned, adding: “It focuses disproportionately on the environmental side, promotes passive forestry and risks causing unwanted industrial relocation outside of Europe and therefore loss of competitiveness in the EU.”

EU climate plan blows hot and cold on forestry, biomass

While recognising the positive role of forests in mitigating global warming, the European Commission has riled the agroforestry and biomass industries by stating its intention of limiting growth in the sector.

NGOs, on the other hand, have welcomed the Commission’s draft forestry strategy. WWF hailed what it described as a robust, Europe-wide framework to monitor the status of forests, and targets for restoring degraded forest ecosystems.

“The draft EU Forest Strategy is a sign that the European Commission has listened and is taking a crucial step in the right direction,” said Sabien Leemans, senior biodiversity policy officer at WWF European Policy Office.

The forest NGO, Fern, has said the draft strategy would be a huge improvement on its predecessor, particularly regarding improved tracking of forests, beyond just old-growth trees, to managed forests.

“This is an opportunity to actually prove that all of the initiatives under the biodiversity strategy are things that the EU is serious about addressing,” said Fern’s Kelsey Perlman.

“Given the governmental and industry backlash against more transparency and democratic debate, I think that says a lot about how little the industry wants to show off their practices,” she added.

How the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive risks destroying Europe’s forests

If the Europe Union doesn’t want an explosion in the amount of wood being harvested for “renewable heat”, it’s essential that the bugs in the Renewable Energy Directive are fixed, write Samuel Thomas, Dominic Scott and Dr Jan Rosenow.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon and Josie Le Blond]

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