This article is part of our special report European forests and climate change.
EU policymakers face a big challenge to maximise the economic potential of Europe’s forestry sector while balancing its carbon emissions and removals. But it’s one they will have to rise to if the bloc is to meet its climate and energy targets.
Forests are Europe’s biggest carbon sinks and forestry the sector with the greatest potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere in the quantities needed to meet the bloc’s Paris Agreement target of slashing net emissions by 40% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.
The EU contains 5% of the world’s forests, covering around 40% of the bloc’s land territory. Some 60% of EU forests, defined as wooded areas of at least 0.5 hectares with a canopy cover of at least 10%, are privately owned. The remaining 40% is owned and managed by public authorities.
Forest area in Europe has expanded continuously over the last 60 years and now covers around 155 million hectares, equivalent to the area of France, Germany, Poland and the UK combined.
Between them, the EU’s forests are capable of removing from the atmosphere and storing 10% of the bloc’s 4.45 billion tonnes of annual carbon emissions.
Bioenergy currently represents 61% of the renewable energy consumed in the EU, with forest biomass making up 70% of all bioenergy. “The tremendous work that remains to be done to get rid of fossil fuels leave space for all types of renewables, including bioenergy,” the Secretary-General of the European Biomass Association (AEBIOM) Jean-Marc Jossart told EURACTIV.com.
And biomass is set to keep playing an important role in the EU’s energy mix as countries seek more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.
Striking the balance
To strike the balance between the climate benefits of carbon removals by forests and the economic and energy potential of the forestry sector, the European Commission proposed in 2016 a regulation on land use, land use change and forestry (known under the pithy acronym LULUCF).
For the first time, this regulation aimed to account for both emissions and removals of CO2 from the atmosphere by the forestry sector, in order to include them in the EU’s 2030 climate targets.
The LULUCF regulation, which includes both a so-called ‘no-debit’ provision, stipulating that emissions from forestry must not outweigh removals, and a flexibility clause to allow countries that exceed their targets to trade net carbon removals from forestry, was adopted by EU negotiators in December.
The European Parliament’s LULUCF rapporteur Norbert Lins welcomed the vote in a statement, saying, “It is all about the right balance.”
“I do not want to put forests in a glass case. Forests need to be managed in a sustainable and active way providing timber for our bbio-economy and climate change mitigation,” he stressed.
Member states will be encouraged to promote the use of harvested wood as a means of carbon capture and storage by accounting for it in their reporting on climate targets.
“We should keep in mind that, since we will not be able to completely stop our greenhouse gas emissions in industry but need to reduce them drastically, our forests need to remove more than they emit,” Lins said. “In this respect, the great performance of land use, land use change and forestry is fundamental and absolutely positive.”
Is wood biomass a climate-friendly fuel?
But in blow to environmentalists, the LULUCF regulation also allowed the continued use of wood biomass as fuel for heating and electricity generation.
The issue of whether or not to burn wood for electricity came up again during a recent Parliament vote on the revised Renewable Energy Directive, which will govern the EU’s renewables policy from 2021 to 2030.
Voting on 17 January, EU lawmakers agreed on a 35% renewable energy target by 2030, bumping up the Commission’s original proposal of 27%. Parliament says this is justified by the falling cost of renewable energy and the fact that the bloc will already get 20% of its energy from renewable sources in 2020.
With forest biomass already the largest source of renewable energy, Green MEP Bas Eikhout stressed the need for tough sustainability criteria to ensure that the EU’s renewable energy drive does not incentivise unsustainable forest use.
“We say ‘don’t burn whole trees’,” he said, adding that it should be up to the producer to prove that the wood they are selling to be burned as renewable biomass is not roundwood – the high quality wood from the main stems of trees – but comes from forest residues such as branches and tree tops, or industrial wastes such a sawdust.
A complex equation
Burning wood is seen as more environmentally friendly than burning fossil fuels because a tree’s impact over its life cycle is carbon neutral: it cannot emit more carbon than it has absorbed in its life time and new growth can replace trees that are cut down, reabsorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
But Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele of the Earth and Life Institute at Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain stressed that it was not such a simple equation.
“Traditionally, wood wastes and residues have been valuable sources of bioenergy and using wood wastes and residues is a helpful way to reduce CO2 by replacing fossil fuels without much reduction in the carbon storage in the forest,” said van Ypersele, a former vice chair of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“However, when trees – which are different from wood residues – are cut deliberately to burn, the signs are that this adds carbon [to the atmosphere] for decades to centuries,” he said, during a visit to Brussels on 9 January with a group of climate scientists.
A rush to burn more wood would endanger the EU’s ability to meet the Paris Agreement targets, he said, adding that the policy could also encourage deforestation in other countries, such as the US, as the EU looks for more wood to burn.
But for AEBIOM, the push-back against using wood biomass as a renewable energy source is largely based on a misunderstanding of the market for forest products.
The European bioenergy sector has developed hand in hand with other wood-based industries to use low value materials such as sawdust, mill residues, thinnings, low-quality wood, tops and limbs that would otherwise have gone to waste.
“We do not burn whole trees,” an AEBIOM representative stressed.
Environmental concerns aside, there appears to be no good economic reason to burn high quality timber, according to the association, as the market value of roundwood is far higher than that of wood used for energy.
What is more, “according to Eurostat data, 95% of all biomass consumed in the EU is locally sourced” because of the impracticalities of transporting it long distances, the AEBIOM representative told EURACTIV.
Jossart added: “In many sectors, bioenergy is one of the few technically available renewable options to achieve the energy transition.”