For the first time, a major EU regulatory body has concluded 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 May 16, the European Parliament’s (EP) Environment Committee voted on revisions to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and the Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) (see story below). But the vote must still be confirmed in plenary, expected in September.
The MEPs’ opinion was crystal clear: primary woody biomass - essentially unprocessed wood – should no longer count towards Member States’ renewable energy targets, or be eligible for RED incentives. With a few important caveats and exceptions, this means no more direct public financial support, no more carbon dioxide emissions from burning it counted as zero, and no more access to new “green” finance under the EU Taxonomy for the energy produced out of primary woody biomass.
Much revolves around the definition of “primary woody biomass” – the definition adopted by ENVI already introduces exceptions to the established FAO-UNECE-Eurostat definition, such as for fire prevention measures and sanitary cuts, and such exceptions have already been used in Poland and British Columbia as pretext to log even primary forests.
The vote can be seen as the result of two different sets of concerns: the indisputable climate damage and biodiversity destruction caused by the unchecked growth of forest bioenergy, and the increasing protests of other wood-using sectors, who have suffered from inflated wood prices caused by biomass subsidies. This latter point is reflected in wording around the cascading principle which aims to ensure “the highest possible material use” of woody biomass and keeping burning it as a last resort.
A novelty added by ENVI MEPs is to request Member States to include national bioenergy plans in their national energy and climate plans, to ensure that each country uses biomass in a way that is compatible with the preservation of its land sink. Given the insufficient quality of current data, this could bring much welcome additional clarity about the overall impacts of woody biomass uses. Depending on how it is implemented, it could also function as a cap on the amount of wood each country would be allowed to burn.
This vote reflects the evidence: in a climate crisis, it is better to keep forests standing, and improve their resilience through better management, than burn them. The bioenergy industry, and its allies among MEPs and national governments are expected to lobby hard to ensure this positive step is reversed – the rapporteur, Finnish MEP Nils Torvalds, who was not in favour of the decision but still voted for it, is already telling the Finnish press this will happen in plenary.
EP’s Environment Committee acknowledges that healthy forests are vital for reaching climate targets
In a separate draft report on the proposal to reform the LULUCF Regulation, the European Parliament’s Environment (ENVI) Committee laid down another marker: recognising that we can’t destroy our forests to fight climate change.
The vote acknowledged that if we want to reach our climate targets, the EU needs healthy forests, and that the LULUCF Regulation’s current endorsement of forest and land-use degradation must end.
There was great language on restoration, the economic opportunities that will arise from higher sequestration targets, and a message of no offsetting of fossil fuel emissions with removals of carbon dioxide from the land use and forest sector. The Committee added more language on biodiversity, which was previously absent from this legislation, including measures to better monitor biodiversity loss, and prevent the use of flexibilities if a country is not implementing environmental laws.
The Committee also rejected the decision to expand the Regulation so that it includes the agricultural sector’s most polluting parts, livestock and fertiliser emissions: a welcome decision.
Less positively, the Committee moved towards largely endorsing the European Commission’s proposal for a very un-ambitious targetof -310Mt of removals of carbon dioxide, including an additional non-binding target of -50Mt of removals.
Accounting for emissions from the land use and forests sector has long been a political minefield among EU Members, mired in complexity. ENVI have made a step in the right direction to ensure that forests and land increase Europe’s carbon sink. But numerous hurdles will have to be cleared for this to happen.