Lawmakers in the European Parliament’s environment committee voted in support of a proposal to phase out biofuels yesterday evening (23 October) but “completely failed” to secure climate friendly use of biomass in heating and electricity, green groups have said.
The Parliament’s environment committee voted yesterday evening on the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive, which set targets for the EU up to 2030.
The report by Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout was adopted with a narrow majority of 32 votes in favour, 29 against and 4 abstentions.
— ENVI Committee Press (@EP_Environment) October 23, 2017
While applauding the committee’s vote in favour of phasing out biofuels seen as damaging for the environment, activists were up in arms against proposals they claimed will encourage burning wood for heating and electricity generation.
“The outcome of the vote today allows increased exploitation of forests and logging of sensitive habitats just to burn the wood for energy,” said Sini Eräjää, EU bioenergy policy officer at BirdLife Europe.
“This outcome fails both forest conservation and climate mitigation, and it also fails to provide long term stability for truly sustainable bioenergy producers, such as the ones processing waste streams,” BirdLife added.
The result, it said, is that “we’ll see more EU mandated use of whole trees or stumps despite a wide scientific acknowledgement that is bad for the climate”.
Wood is currently the EU’s biggest single source of renewable energy, accounting for as much as 45% of all renewables consumed in the EU, according to industry sources – considerably more than wind, geothermal, hydro and solar put together.
But further incentives are leading to increasing harvests and emissions, and pressure on forests in Europe and further afield, warned FERN, an NGO that keeps track of the European Union’s involvement in forest policy.
“With tonight’s vote, the Environment Committee has made the unthinkable possible, namely to weaken the Commission’s proposal on a sustainable use of forest biomass,” FERN said. “This approach will still allow Member States to burn whole trees in old converted coal-fired power stations”.
The paper industry was equally furious, denouncing a vote that “seriously jeopardises Europe’s bioeconomy by encouraging the mass conversion to biomass by low-efficiency coal power plants.”
“The European bioeconomy deserves much better than turning wood into megawatts,” said Sylvain Lhôte, Director General of the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI).
Burning wood for electricity
The EU’s renewable energy policy has attracted growing opposition from NGOs and scientists who expressed “grave concern” over the scientific basis of encouraging the use of biomass in electricity production.
In the firing line of NGOs is Drax, the largest power station in the UK, which has partially converted from coal to biomass. Drax uses wood pellets imported from the US but claims they are sustainably sourced.
“Having just spent time in the United States looking at the supply chain in wood pellets for Drax, I believe it to be a rational energy choice, so long as basic sustainability conditions are met,” said Tony Juniper, a former executive director of Friends of the Earth, who is advising Drax on its sustainability strategy.
In the US, although harvesting increased by 57% over the last 60 years, investment in sustainable forest management has led to a 112% increase in forest growth over the same period, Drax argued.
“Because of healthy markets for wood products like pellets, the area of forest in the US remained largely the same but the amount of stored carbon in the standing trees increased by 108% over this period,” said Dr Rebecca Heaton, a forester by training and Head of Sustainability and Policy at Drax Power.
“Healthy wood markets encourage responsible forest management, which leads to better quality trees and more carbon stored in the forest and in solid wood products,” Heaton argued.
But environmental activists are having none of it.
“The biomass industry’s spin doctors can pop the champagne this evening,” commented Alex Mason, Senior Renewable Energy Policy Officer at the WWF’s European Policy Office.
“MEPs have decided that the best way to tackle climate change is to burn more trees. If they are not prepared to defend the environment and the climate against corporate interests, or to listen to what virtually the entire scientific establishment is telling them, then it’s not clear why they sit in the ‘Environment’ committee,” Mason said.
In an opinion piece for EURACTIV, a group of scientists have warned that increased harvesting of wood “have a negative impact on the climate because the standing forest carbon stock is immediately reduced when the forest is harvested”.
Besides, they argue that “it may take decades to centuries until the former level of the carbon stock is restored by regrowth” even though the forest may be seen as being managed “sustainably”.
“About 60% of the wood in Europe is used for (short-lived) energy and pulp, where much of the carbon is released immediately,” the scientists wrote, warning that “harvesting also leads to other greenhouse gas emissions, and influences the climate via biophysical processes”.
According to WWF, harvesting tree trunks and stumps for energy and burning them at industrial scale is “completely counterproductive as a way of tackling climate change”, although it has been growing rapidly since the EU first introduced its Renewable Energy Directive in 2009.
“The only hope now is that the Parliament as a whole overrides this dangerous result when they vote in plenary next year,” Mason added.
“Either way this issue isn’t going away because the science is very clear. It’s just a question of how much more forest is burnt before the EU does a u-turn”.