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EU Forest Watch Issue 212 - February 2016

EU Commission investigates state aid to Drax

The European Commission opened an investigation into a UK request to grant public support to Drax to convert a coal-fired power installation to biomass combustion. This is a second Commission investigation after it looked into requested aid for the conversion of the Lynemouth plant last year.

The UK has requested approval for GBP 1.3 billion in state aid to Drax over the next 10 years for the conversion of a third unit at the Drax power station. This unit would provide 645 Megawatts of electricity by burning approximately 2.4 million tonnes of wood pellets a year – nine per cent of the current global pellet market.

The Commission will consider whether the aid is proportional; that is, whether the positive effects in achieving climate and environmental objectives outweigh the potential distortion of the electricity and the raw materials markets. Interested parties have been invited to provide input to the investigation.

As Fern’s report shows, large-scale facilities achieve the opposite of what they intend: they often burn large volumes of wood at a very low rate of efficiency, wasting a lot of material. They also worsen air quality and emit huge amounts of CO2.

Perhaps more importantly, they rely on imports of wood from sometimes highly biodiverse forest with limited environmental protection and from areas where peoples’ customary rights to land are not always respected, such as the US, Canada and Brazil.

Fern urges the Commission to reflect on the social, environmental and climate impacts that large-scale biomass burners are causing, and which this Drax unit will aggravate further. The Commission should acknowledge that there is a limited supply of biomass in the EU and globally.

Further reliance on imports will encourage social conflict over land and increase deforestation abroad – undermining EU objectives on tackling global deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Image: Katy Stoddart via Flickr

Dutch Parliament suspends biomass subsidies

The Dutch Parliament is challenging the wisdom of burning biomass for energy, voting on 2 February in favour of a resolution to suspend subsidies for biomass co-firing until a political agreement is reached regarding a total phase-out of coal.

When the Parliament called on the Government to phase out coal last December, the Government responded that coal plants should remain in operation specifically to allow them to co-fire biomass and reach renewable energy targets; this, despite the fact that 64 Dutch scientists had argued that closing coal plants should be prioritised over biomass co-firing.

It remains to be seen whether the resolution will reopen the Dutch Energy Agreement (2013), which included a commitment to close five coal plants and sustainability criteria for biomass, and which energy companies and environmental NGOs signed.

NGOs call on EU to scrap bioenergy from Renewable Energy policy

The World Rainforest Movement and BiofuelWatch have called on the EU to scrap bio-energy subsidies, starting with the upcoming Renewable Energy Directive. In their eyes, incentivising large-scale bioenergy production is anything but renewable: it relies on industrial-scale agriculture and monoculture tree plantations, and it can actually increase emissions rather than reducing them.

The statement suggests that small-scale, locally-owned bioenergy undertakings that can be supported through EU rural development funding are a preferable alternative.

The NGO statement, which is open for other organisations to sign, was released as the European Commission conducts a public consultation with a view to revising its renewables policy for the post-2020 period.

Meanwhile, a study carried out by Forest Research for the European Commission, shows that bioenergy use can lead to increasing CO₂ emissions and is not carbon-neutral, as current EU bioenergy policy assumes.

The study, Carbon impacts of biomass consumed in the EU, warns that significant use of wood for energy presents great risks to sustainable harvesting, both within the EU and in other regions, especially the US.

Another important conclusion is that biomass imports contribute a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The study revealed that unconstrained bioenergy use could lead to annual emissions of about 520 metric tons of CO₂ equivalent. Fern aims to provide a more in depth analysis of the study in the next Forest Watch.

Image: Fred Pearce

News in brief: 

Well-documented links exist between increased deforestation of an area and the emergence of diseases. Previously, the relationship was established between deforestation and Ebola (FW 196) and, more recently, rising cases of zoonotic malaria (Plasmodium knowlesi). Now deforestation is a suspected factor in the spread of the Zika virus. The Journal of Global Health argues that, while the increase in infectious disease is not the only threat posed by deforestation, it has the most direct, measurable impact on health. It says that forest clearance alters ecosystem dynamics and leads to new breeding habitats for disease vectors such as mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. People living within or near these fragmented forests are therefore at risk of infection, and measures must be developed to reduce the risk. Halting deforestation would seem an obvious first step.

 

A powerful new documentary shows how the EU is driving land grabs across the world to feed the surging demand for agricultural commodities. Land Grabbing, by Austrian director Kurt Langbein, weaves the stories of the investors and the companies behind this drive for land with those suffering its consequences. From the community in Sierra Leone whose livelihoods are threatened by a Chinese company producing biofuel for the EU market, to Cambodian villagers evicted to make way for a palm oil plantation, to the Ethiopian women working for a pittance in desperate conditions to produce tomatoes for export, the film is a searing indictment of the misery caused by the rush for agricultural land.

 

Genetically engineered trees are controversial for various reasons (FW196, FW202): their negative social and environmental impacts are documented, and their claimed benefits have tended not to materialise. Now it appears that the business practices of companies promoting them are among these reasons: One of the world’s leading producers of genetically engineered trees and suppliers to the forestry industry, ArborGen, suffered a major setback when it was fined USD 53.5 million for tricking a group of employees into accepting changes to lucrative incentive packages. The judge also ruled against ArborGen’s three parent companies – International Paper, MeadWestvaco and the New Zealand-based Rubicon – which plan to appeal against the verdict, a potentially lengthy process. Rubicon’s share price has dropped by more than a third since September 2015, when it looked likely that ArborGen would lose the dispute.

 

With the dust settled on the COP21 UN climate change conference, Samuel Nnah Ndobe, Cameroonian agricultural specialist and founding member of the Accra Caucus on Forests and Climate Change, has written a blog for Fern about what the 12 December climate agreement means for forest communities in the Congo Basin.

  
FERN works to achieve environmental and social justice with a focus on forests and forest peoples' rights in the policies and practices of the European Union.
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