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Latest evidence on the destructive climate and health impact of biomass subsidies and wood burning

7 mayo 2024

Latest evidence on the destructive climate and health impact of biomass subsidies and wood burning

The European Environment Agency (EEA) released (March 2024) its yearly overview of renewable energy deployment in the EU for 2022: 23% of the energy consumed in the EU during 2022 came from renewable sources, an increase driven mainly by strong growth in the solar and wind sectors. But solid biomass – essentially, wood burning – still represented 40% of the renewables mix that year, a proportion that decreases only slowly. In absolute terms, the biomass sector continues to grow. Under the EU’s renewable energy policy, Member States still can subsidise new wood-burning energy projects and count the resulting energy towards their renewable energy targets.  

According to the EEA (p.122), EU direct emissions from biomass combustion reached about 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2022, a 27% increase in a decade.  

By contrast, the EU land sink is shrinking rapidly (p.183), largely driven by bioenergy use, as well as the climate and biodiversity crises. In 2021, the EU land sector removed only 230 million tonnes of CO2e from the atmosphere, 46% less than a decade earlier. Overall, the amount of carbon stored in EU forests has been diminishing since 2015.  

Under EU policy, biomass emissions are “counted” in the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) rather than the energy sector. This allows them to be masked by claims of tree growth and means the carbon debt created by wood burning is not truly reflected – a win for energy companies. If direct biomass emissions had been counted in the energy sector, the EU would have had to increase its declared total greenhouse gas emissions by 16.6% in 2022, from 3.6 to 4.2 billion tonnes of CO2e .  

While figures are subject to uncertainty, pending the much-needed introduction of better forest monitoring at the EU level, the trends are consistent with recent satellite observations: logging is shrinking the total area of tall forests (forests over 15 metres in height) in Europe.

It has been long-known that wood-burning emits very high levels of toxic fine particles. Residential wood-burning is the biggest source of particulate matter and soot/black carbon in Europe, and several large cities in Europe – London, Paris, Brussels – regularly ban the domestic burning of wood during air pollution crises. In rural areas, however, wood-burning was assumed to be more benign. A recent study in Germany demonstrated that this is not the case: winter measurements by scientists in a Saxony village showed that villagers’ cancer risk from wood-burning exposure was similar to that in major European cities, including Athens and Florence.  

This accumulation of evidence has incited leading EU public health NGOs such as the Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL) to demand that wood burning is no longer classified as ‘renewable’ energy, that subsidies for it are stopped, and that they be redirected to cleaner sources of energy and heating to help citizens access less toxic and climate-damaging heating solutions.

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This article was edited by Nicole Gérard.

Categorías: News, Forest Watch, Bioenergy

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