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Bioenergy: Briefing note

Covered in smoke: why burning biomass threatens European health

Tens of thousands of EU citizens are dying prematurely every year as a result of exposure to air pollution from burning solid biomass, mainly wood, to provide heat and electricity. Other health impacts include cancers, cardiac and respiratory complaints, asthma attacks and working days lost to ill health.  These are among the findings of new research by a leading independent expert, commissioned by Fern. We are publishing the report now as the EU is preparing to agree a proposed revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (REDII) to apply after 2020. If approved in its current form, the revised directive will inevitably lead to the continuation of high levels of biomass burning and thus exposure to the dangerous health impacts of biomass emissions. Using this form of fuel to meet renewable energy targets makes little sense on environmental grounds – it leads to carbon dioxide emissions and has negative impacts on forests. The case collapses completely when the disastrous consequences for European health are taken into account, an issue that until now has received far too little attention.

Dr Mike Holland’s full report is available here

A shorter summary of the main findings and analysis is available here.

What impact has the Renewable Energy Directive had on EU forests?

The EU Renewable Energy Directive was launched in 2009 to great fanfare and the promise that the EU would fulfil at least 20 per cent of its total energy needs with renewables. Few could have guessed that a policy intended to help the EU meet climate goals would lead to vast increases in the burning of wood, degrading forests in Europe and beyond. See a summary of the new research commissioned by Fern, Birdlife Europe and Transport & Environment:












Briefing note:

PDF iconFull report489.12 KB
PDF iconReport summary310.81 KB

How to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals? Focus on forests

In September 2015, world governments adopted an Agenda for Sustainable Development with 17 universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. The aims are noble and daunting – end all forms of poverty, fight inequality, address climate change, and ensure that no one is left behind. This leaflet explains why these goals cannot be met without changes to EU forest policy.

It is not enough to see forests as an ‘environment-only’ issue. Protecting forests and the communities that defend them is just as much about poverty eradication, food security, climate change, social justice and sustainable consumption and production patterns. Any EU response to the SDGs must therefore include the protection of forests and the recognition and promotion of the rights of those who live in them.

PDF iconFocus on forests.pdf401.04 KB

Burning trees for energy is no solution to climate change

This briefing note outlines why using wood to produce renewable electricity and heat can increase carbon dioxide emissions. It explains what is wrong with the assumption that all biomass use for energy is ‘carbon-neutral’ and why the increasing scale at which biomass is used can reduce forests’ ability to be a sink for carbon.

The problem is heightened because existing policy tools such as Sustainable Forest Management and LULUCF accounting don’t work to ensure bioenergy use truly reduces emissions.

The briefing concludes with recommendations for how the EU can achieve a successful sustainability policy for bioenergy.

It is also available in German, French and Spanish.

A new sustainable bioenergy policy

The European Commission has announced that it will propose a new and improved bioenergy sustainability policy for the use of biomass in heating, electricity and transport as part of its Climate and Energy Package for 2030.

This report explains why EU bioenergy policy needs safeguards which check that bioenergy is truly low carbon, resource efficient and avoids negative consequences on biodiversity, soil, water, land use and people. It includes proposals for how to regulate bioenergy production and use in the EU’s renewable energy policy framework 2020 – 2030.

Why LULUCF cannot ensure that bioenergy reduces emissions

The European Commission is currently reviewing the sustainability of uses and sources of bioenergy for the period after 2020. They will also propose a new policy on how to include the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector in the EU’s 2030 climate and energy framework. This briefing note presents the problems of relying on LULUCF to ensure bioenergy reduces carbon emissions. It shows that the assumption that emissions from biomass harvests are fully accounted for in the LULUCF sector comes with large caveats. More importantly, the incentives and burden of proof should be put on the energy producer, rather than on the land sector.

The coalition recommends that:

  • the EU strengthens LULUCF policy, and adopts additional policy measures to ensure that bioenergy delivers robust greenhouse gas emission savings
  • the EU introduces a cap on the amount of bioenergy that can be counted towards 2030 renewable energy and climate targets
  • the EU legislates against the use of high risk biomass sources and introduces a minimum threshold for the efficiency of energy production systems

Bioenergy briefing note 1: the limited availability of wood for energy

This is the first of a series of briefings Fern is producing on bioenergy. This briefing shows how little forest biomass is available, and proposes an EU strategy for a more efficient use of the scarce wood resource.

The European Union (EU)’s renewable energy policy aims to cut carbon emissions by replacing fossil fuels with sustainable alternatives, and one of its main tools is the promotion of bioenergy. Heating and electricity produced with biomass accounts for more than half of the renewable energy produced in the EU.

Three-quarters of this biomass is ‘woody biomass’, harvested directly from forests. If Member States were to use biomass according to their renewable energy plans, by 2020 the amount of wood used for energy alone would be equivalent to today’s total EU wood harvest.

The EU is currently considering how to meet its 2030 renewable energy target, and the European Commission is expected to propose new policies for renewable energy and sustainable biomass early in 2017. This will be welcome, as continuing with the EU’s current renewable energy policy would likely lead to the further loss of forests and biodiversity, without mitigating climate change effectively.

This series of briefings argues that, first, the new EU policies for renewable energy should recognise that there is not enough wood available for a sharp increase in the use of biomass; and second, that using woody biomass does not necessarily reduce carbon emissions. The EU should therefore not allow subsidies for the use of forest biomass after 2020.



Most recent publications

Climate the loser as the European Parliament fails to ensure wood is burnt sustainably

(Brussels) – 17 January 2018. The European Parliament today failed to help the climate by reversing the European Union’s (EU) disastrous bioenergy policy. 

PDF iconEP bioenergy_RED_vote_Fern_PR.pdf589.49 KB

EU proposals on bioenergy: a serious threat to climate and sustainable development goals

This letter written on behalf of 30 NGOs asks Members of the European Parliament to support crucial changes to the proposed rules on bioenergy in the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive.

Covered in smoke: why burning biomass threatens European health

Tens of thousands of EU citizens are dying prematurely every year as a result of exposure to air pollution from burning solid biomass, mainly wood, to provide heat and electricity.

Council fails to make the EU’s use of biomass sustainable

This press release responds to EU Energy ministers failure to ensure #EUbioenergy is sustainable. By allowing large scale burning of trees for power they are likely to increase forest logging and emissions.

PDF iconFern_PR_Council Decision_REDII.pdf478.62 KB

Forest restoration - Our secret weapon for achieving the Paris Agreement targets

To reach the Paris Agreement temperature target of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees we must preserve and restore forests. On 16 November 2017 our event looked at how forest restoration can be undertaken in a way that protects local people’s rights and consider ways to mobilise finances for protection and restoration.

Playing with Fire: Europe's bioenergy future

Many European countries rely on bioenergy to meet their renewable energy targets - with detrimental impacts on forests, air quality, the climate and the European wood industry.