June was a critical month for EU Member States to determine the extent of their climate ambition, and how forests would help them achieve it.
Unfortunately, they failed to live up to the hopes invested in them.
On 20 June 2019, the European Council failed to reach agreement on attaining net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Member States could not agree on this date, instead opting for more vague language aiming for climate neutrality “in line with the Paris Agreement”. The irony is that, to be in line with Paris, they must agree on a timeline for climate neutrality.
In order to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible, the EU needs to rely on a certain amount of negative emissions to absorb carbon dioxide – a contentious issue in climate circles. Forests stock and absorb CO2 during photosynthesis, and wood can also be used to replace materials that are more polluting to produce. However, EU policies encourage countries to subsidise the worst use of wood: burning it. This is part of the reason why forests are soaking up less and less CO2.
The Commission recently issued recommendations on Member State National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) for 2030. Worryingly, these also lacked the ambition – or even realism – required to reach the goals of Paris. For forests specifically, transparency about biomass use for energy and its impact on forest sinks was severely lacking.
At the Commission’s press conference announcing the recommendations on 18 June, Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete emphasised the gap in collective progress towards achieving the EU’s renewable energy target, but he failed to mention the importance of the policies and measures that will help achieve it. Bioenergy currently provides more than 65 per cent of the EU’s renewable mix and is projected to continue increasing until 2030. At EU and at MS level, we are on a course doomed to fail if bioenergy is treated as a large-scale solution, and if we do not acknowledge the risks associated with it.
Time is running out for the EU to change course. The EU and Member States must restrict biomass in 2030 and 2050 plans in order to avoid a climate loophole – that is, burning trees, thereby emitting CO2, in the name of climate action. Member States have until December to repair NECPs and should conclude discussions to reach net-zero by the next European Council meeting in November. Europe cannot keep delaying while temperatures rise.