Will the European Commission scrap public subsidies and regulations that reward the burning of forest biomass for energy, or give in to industry and several Member States’ pressure to keep incentivising forest destruction?
On July 14, the European Commission is expected to publish a package of legislation to implement its “European Green Deal” and its announcement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030.
The package includes the revision of one of the European Union’s (EU) most ill-fated ‘green’ policies: the public subsidies to “bioenergy” enshrined in its 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED), that reward in particular turning forest biomass into pellets and burning these in large power plants across the continent.
Every year in the EU, nearly seven billion Euros are handed to energy producers that burn wood. It is no surprise, then, that the bioenergy industry keeps growing. There is a glut of new plans to convert power-plants from coal to biomass, and forests in Europe and beyond are suffering from the additional demand for wood. The stakes are increased by EU ‘green’ finance plans, which will follow the RED in incentivising private investments in ‘sustainable biomass’.
The science on bioenergy’s climate and biodiversity impacts has become very clear
Burning wood produces more carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of energy than any fossil fuel. Even when it replaces coal, it takes several decades for forest bioenergy to start showing any climate benefit.
In December 2019, an international team of scientists identified the RED as one of the 15 leading global biological conservation issues for 2020, as it may “accelerate the loss of primary forest and exacerbate climate change.”
A recent joint United Nations report showed that the climate and biodiversity crises can only be addressed jointly, and that we therefore need to restore forests.
Recent recommendations by the Commission’s own scientific advisory bodies point to the need to only support biomass whose uses have a payback time compatible with the Paris Agreement 1.5°C – and that means five to ten years.
Unfortunately, the current RED fails continues to allow the burning of what the Commission’s own forest scientists found to be the worst types of wood: that taken directly out of forests. It is hard to see how increased harvesting could be justified at a time when European forests are capturing less and less CO2.
Industry’s lobbying firepower and governmental allies
Most EU officials seem to understand that the RED’s treatment of forest biomass undermines EU climate and biodiversity goals, but also find it politically difficult to acknowledge the shortcomings and exclude forest biomass – it accounts for 18 per cent of total EU energy production labelled as renewable.
In the past 18 months, lobbyists representing or supporting the forest biomass industry’s interests have met with European Commission high-level officials at least 112 times. The EU’s lobbying transparency register shows they discussed issues related to the RED and other EU forestry policies.
Even back in 2009, these interests declared an annual combined lobbying budget of around eight million Euros.
Industry sponsors confusion to neutralise peer-reviewed science
When scientists made it crystal clear that burning biomass would not mitigate the climate crisis, lobby groups turned to the tried and tested tactic of “doubt-mongering” - inflating scepticism to neutralise science.
A report commissioned by the Swedish Forestry Industry Federation and presented to EU decision-makers in early June found that “carbon debt”, the time needed for new trees to capture the CO2 produced by burning trees was an “illusion”. The report was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, and harshly criticised for using confusing definitions and arbitrary parameters to find results that supported its sponsor’s position.
European Commission research pointing to an increase of wood harvests in the EU, in particular Scandinavia, was so criticised by industry and their allies that the Commission had to publish a list of frequently asked questions.
This exchange of letters between the World Bioenergy Association (WBA), the global bioenergy industry lobby, and the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), tasked with advising EU policy-makers. They show how industry tried to undermine EASAC’s scientific credibility by suggesting there was a conflict between EASAC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the EU’s Joint Research Committee. In fact their work complemented each other.
Infighting within the European Commission
As the publication date for the revised RED has loomed, internal splits over its fate have grown in the Commission.
While the environment department (DG Environment) wants rules minimising forest destruction in the RED and in their own Forest Strategy, the energy department (DG Energy), in charge of the RED file, has started defending the status quo and remains close to the bioenergy industry positions. DG Energy’s leaked internal critique of DG Environment’s Forest Strategy was largely based on ideas from industry position papers and letters, and even included some sentences copied verbatim.
The Finnish Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen, in charge of International Partnerships, was personally lobbied by the Finnish bioenergy and forestry industries in October and November 2020. This was followed by more than 12 meetings between these interests and her cabinet, a sequence ending in April after the inclusion of very weak bioenergy criteria in EU green finance rules. An EU lobbyist of MTK, representing Finnish farmers and forest owners interests, quoted by Finnish media in June 2021 saying Urpilainen had promoted forestry issues within the Commission before, and that he would request her help against the draft Forest Strategy.
The European Commission’s political leaders are now trying to broker a compromise. RED texts are being internally finalised as we write, but how meaningful will these be?
The exclusion of forest biomass would signal a clear, enforceable policy willing to deal with the gravity of the climate and biodiversity crises. But if the compromise only tinkers with the current meaningless definition of “sustainable biomass”, and continues to allow subsidies and ‘green’ private investment, the vested interests will have won the battle. But not the war.
The Commission’s legislative proposal will still need to pass through the European Parliament and national governments, and any EU policy that financially rewards the burning of forests is unlikely to be popular with the public. These policies have a huge effect on well-loved forests in Europe and beyond, so Members of Parliament in the EU and Member States are likely to take strong positions in the ensuing debate. If the Commission doesn’t stand for forests, they should.