After a year and a half of discussions over the shape of a new Renewable Energy Directive (REDII), on 14 June 2018 the EU chose to disregard science and appease the economic interests who had been pressing for a continuation of its destructive policy of burning wood for energy (FW 232).
Woody biomass is the EU’s biggest source of renewable energy, although scientists are increasingly ranged against it. Rather than reducing emissions by comparison with fossil fuels, as is frequently claimed, a growing number of scientists have raised the alarm that burning biomass will backfire: biomass cannot grow back fast enough to make up for the initial emissions from burning – which are greater than those from coal. The public has long been alarmed about the negative impact that burning biomass could have on forests in the EU and elsewhere. Even certain Member States, such as the Netherlands, have suspended subsidies for burning biomass.
A pity, then, that the EU has chosen the easy option: to appease the energy and forestry sectors, and to not ruffle the feathers of forested nations – in particular Finland and Sweden. The REDII preserves the most destructive weaknesses of its predecessor: the use of roundwood is not restricted, increased forest harvests are allowed, and there are few limitations imposed on large-scale use of biomass in inefficient energy installations – with all the attendant adverse impacts on forests and climate.
Perhaps the EU is timid in the face of growing nationalism and its own waning popularity. Immediate economic interests are always easier to articulate – but no more important – than the broader public interest in our changing climate, air quality and diminishing forests. It would have been heartening for European citizens to see the EU’s legislative bodies taking a longer view and ardently defending the general interest, rather than caving in.