Since 2009, the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) has allowed Member States to subsidise energy from burning biomass. The aim was to cut emissions, but it didn’t take into account the many disadvantages of bioenergy: Member States have transformed coal power stations to burn woody biomass, cut their own forests for fuel, and even imported trees from the USA and beyond. 

Bioenergy in Europe has been disastrous for the climate, forests and people’s health. The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive ignores these fundamental principles: that forests are a natural carbon sink, that wood is a limited resource, and that wood is a source of carbon dioxide when burnt. Many scientists who conducted research on bioenergy have warned that increasing the combustion of wood is not compatible with the emergency posed by our climate breakdown: we only have a decade left to drastically limit our CO2 emissions. Furthermore, the EU’s reliance on forest biomass for renewable energy is incompatible with its goal to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

What do Fern and our partners want? 

To achieve socially and environmentally friendly EU climate and energy policies, the EU must stop subsidising the burning of forest biomass and exclude such bioenergy from counting towards renewable energy targets.

What are we doing? 

Fern is helping coordinate the individuals and organisations from around the world campaigning to prevent increasing reliance on forest biomass for energy.

What is Bioenergy?

Bioenergy is gas or electricity that comes from renewable sources, such as plant matter or animal waste. 

This is known as biomass.

Biomass contains energy stored from the sun. This energy is absorbed during the photosynthesis process. 

When biomass is burned, its chemical energy is released as heat.

Biomass is often burned on a local scale to heat homes and to provide heat for cooking (mainly in less developed countries), and as such is an important part of many peoples’ livelihoods.

However, bioenergy is more often spoken about in terms of the large-scale and intensive harvesting and burning of wood from forests in the US, Canada, and Europe. Today, most biomass which is burnt for energy on this scale comes from trees, and more worryingly, from forests.

Find out more here.

What is BioEnergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS)?

The climate emergency is on the verge of becoming a climate crisis. Years of inaction have meant that climate scientists are no longer just discussing the need to reduce emissions, they are also talking about having to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Known as negative emissions, carbon dioxide removals are now at the centre of the climate conversation.

Governments are responding by looking for technological fixes, and one of the most often discussed is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). But the belief that BECCS would remove emissions is based on the faulty assumption that bioenergy is carbon neutral. This is not the case. BECCS would also have massive social, environmental and economic costs. It offers the false promise of a get-out clause and must not be allowed to distract from the urgent need to stop burning fossil fuels and to protect and restore forests, soils and other ecosystems.

Read more

What are the alternatives to bioenergy and BECCS?

The answers are surprisingly simple.

Instead of burning forests for energy, we can reduce the amounts of energy we use and invest in and subsidise local, real renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar.

To achieve negative emissions (the aim of BECCS) the answer is even more logical. Protecting and restoring natural forests would benefit biodiversity and also bring climate and social benefits. Unlike BECCS, restoring natural forests’ climate benefits are tried and tested. Forests already store large quantities of carbon and they have been sequestering carbon for hundreds of millions of years. If protected and managed with the full inclusion of the people that live in and depend upon them, they can help us achieve the targets of Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. But first we must reject a heavy reliance on negative emissions and rapidly reduce emissions from fossil fuels to zero, stop destroying ecosystems, and reduce the overconsumption of natural resources.

Read more about the alternatives to bioenergy and BECCS.

November 2016

The European Commission proposes that inefficient bioenergy power stations should be exempt from receiving public subsidies.

December 2017

800 scientists tell the EU not to burn the world’s forests for ‘renewable’ energy in an open letter in The Guardian newspaper.

August 2018

The EU clings to its doomed biomass policy in new Renewable Energy Directive for the period 2021 – 2030, continuing to incentivise increasing forest harvests, burning whole trees and large-scale inefficient electricity installations.

December 2019

The Commission’s EU Green Deal is unveiled, outlining its objective that the EU is carbon neutral by 2050. For this  to be happen bioenergy must be phased out, says Fern.

Januyary 2021

The EC’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) publishes a crucial study explaining why burning forest biomass for energy in Europe is unfit to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis. It concludes that about 32% of EU's total renewable energy most likely originates from forest biomass. 

February 2021

Over 500 scientists write to EU leaders calling on them to end subsidies or other incentives that are allowed under EU laws for burning wood for energy and power.

June 2021

Over 240 000 people sign a petition calling on the EU to exclude energy generated by burning forest wood from counting towards renewable energy targets, and to prioritise forest protection and restoration. 

July 2021

As part of its Fit for 55 climate legislation package, the European Commission proposes a review of the Renewable Energy Directive. It fails to address the challenge of unsustainable bioenergy, but does indicate that EU officials are now aware of the threat. 

Who’s involved?

In Europe we’re working with our partners the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Estonian Fund for Nature, and in the United States, with Dogwood Alliance and Partnership for Policy Integrity.

Scientists, academics, NGOs, economists and health experts all agree that burning of trees for power can be worse for the climate than burning coal, expensive and harmful to human health.

Does burning trees for energy harm the environment?

These fact sheets explain how bioenergy reduces biodiversity.

Why bioenergy is not a solution How bioenergy harms biodiversity

Unsustainable and ineffective: why EU forest biomass standards won’t stop destruction

This analysis of reveals that EU sustainability criteria do nothing to stop problematic harvesting, and can’t ensure that bioenergy helps the climate crisis.

Read more

Martin Pigeon

Martin Pigeon

Forest & Climate Campaigner

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