Campaigners hail ‘historic breakthrough’ on revised EU biomass rules

Bio power plant with storage of wooden fuel [nostal6ie / Shutterstock]

Environmental groups claimed victory earlier this week after the European Parliament’s environment committee voted on new rules clarifying what can be counted as “sustainable biomass” under the revised renewable energy directive. Others were more cautious though, saying the battle is far from over.

“This vote is a historic breakthrough,” said Martin Pigeon, a campaigner at Fern, an environmental NGO dedicated to protecting forests and the rights of people who depend on them.

“For the first time, a major EU regulatory body makes clear that one of the EU’s most climate-wrecking policies of the last decade, incentivising the burning of forests in the name of renewable energy, has to stop.”

On Tuesday (17 May), the Parliament’s environment committee voted on two pieces of EU legislation: the renewable energy directive and the regulation on land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF).

Their amendments include a new definition for primary woody biomass under the renewable energy directive. Apart from certain exemptions, woody biomass would no longer be considered as renewable energy and would therefore no longer be eligible for incentives meant to promote renewables.

Forestry NGO Fern hailed the vote as a major victory. 

“The European Parliament’s Environment Committee opinion is crystal-clear: primary woody biomass – essentially unprocessed wood – should no longer count towards Member States’ renewable energy targets, or be eligible to RED incentives,” Pigeon said. “This means no more direct public financial support, no more CO2 emissions from burning it counted as zero, and no more access to new ‘green’ finance under the EU Taxonomy.”

Other campaigners were ecstatic as well. “It’s hard to find a fuel dirtier than coal, but the biomass industry has done it. We’re glad Europe is starting to recognise just how dirty this fuel is,” said Amanda Hurowitz, from Mighty Earth, a US-based environmental group.

According to data published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the CO2 content of wood per unit of energy is much higher than gas and more comparable to coal.

But not all environmentalists were thrilled by the Parliament’s vote. Secondary woody biomass, such as sawdust, black liquor, and post-consumer wood waste, would still count as renewable under the draft rules voted in Parliament on Tuesday.

“We are afraid that this half-step will be celebrated as some sort of victory, when in reality more than half of the biomass burned will, under this proposal, still receive subsidies and still not be included in the emissions statistics,” said Lina Burnelius, project leader at ‘Protect the Forest Sweden’.

Crucially, it remains to be seen whether the whole European Parliament or EU member states will support the position voted in the environment committee. Both will need to agree a common text before the proposal can be adopted into law.

“The bioenergy industry has grown largely thanks to these incentives and will fight furiously against this ceiling on its supply. Moreover, it can sadly count on the support of some allied EU governments, such as the current ones of Sweden, Finland or Austria,” said Pigeon.

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Pushback from the industry

Biomass has become increasingly controversial in recent years. Nordic countries heavily rely on it to reach their renewable targets and some argue it could help Europe in cutting its reliance on Russian fossil fuel imports.

In April, for instance, Germany tabled its so-called ‘Easter Package’, promoting the use of biomass to meet peak energy demand.

“Bioenergy is key in replacing Russian fossil fuels as approximately half of Europe’s energy use is for heating, and this is where sustainable biomass can play the biggest role as three-quarters of bioenergy is bioheat,” said Irene di Padua, policy director at Bioenergy Europe, a trade organisation.

Biomass can be deployed in existing energy infrastructure with little or no retrofitting. 96% of it is sourced locally with the remainder coming from trusted sources, making it an effective way to increase energy dependence without cutting back on climate goals, she added.

The industry group warned against striking primary woody biomass from the list of renewables, saying this would make around 20% of EU renewable energy ineligible for support.

“Sustainable bioenergy plays a vital role in the EU where, in 2019, it accounted for 11.4% of total energy and 57.6% of renewable energy. Declaring between a third to half of this energy as unrenewable will jeopardise our ability to achieve our climate ambitions,” said Daniel Reinemann, policy officer at Bioenergy Europe.

The industry agrees that sustainability criteria are needed, but says this needs to be structured to incentivise and enable sustainable practices while avoiding blanket bans that could “suffocate” the industry, which provides over 800,000 jobs.

Similarly, the Confederation of European Forest Owners (CEPF) does not support the restricted use of forest biomass, saying this would decrease revenues for forest owners and undermine their ability to act as custodians of Europe’s forests.

“Not acknowledging the importance of the primary biomass for energy purposes would mean leaving more forest biomass in forests after harvesting, which increases the risk of natural disturbances and can slow down the regeneration process,” said Maria Pohjala, a policy advisor at CEPF.

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Increased ambition for carbon storage

EU lawmakers also voted to support the European Commission’s proposal for the land use and forestry sector to capture 310 million tonnes of CO2 by 2030, a move that would raise Europe’s greenhouse gas reduction target from 55% to 57% by 2030.

They also called for sub-targets on cropland, grassland and wetlands at EU and national level and proposed that carbon farming should deliver the CO2 equivalent of 50 million additional tonnes of net removals.

“The European Parliament sends a clear signal to the Council: We are ready to increase the LULUCF target,” said Delara Burkhardt, a German lawmaker for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in Parliament. “The land-use and forestry sector has so much climate protection potential,” she added, saying healthy forests will also help protect biodiversity.

Ville Niinistö, the Green lawmaker who led the negotiations on LULUCF, also welcomed the agreement on the increased role of carbon sinks.

“Support for carbon storage products and carbon farming [were] also seen as possibilities for landowners, farmers and forest management to develop new climate-smart products with a focus on environmental integrity,” he told EURACTIV.

However, this increased target risks raising the pressure on the forest sector, CEPF warned.

“The ambitious carbon removal target could put pressure on reducing harvesting levels in member states and therefore has negative impacts on the supply of wood products, wood availability and job creation in rural areas,” said Pohjala.

The revision of the LULUCF regulation is expected to be voted on by the whole European Parliament in June. While the Parliament’s industry committee is leading on the revision of renewable energy directive, the environment committee has precedence over forestry matters.

The renewable energy directive is expected to be voted in plenary after the summer break.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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