The energy crisis is intensifying pressure on Europe's already besieged forests. Here's how we can limit the damage, writes Martin Pigeon.
The prospect of a European winter energy crisis loomed from the moment Russia launched its assault on Ukraine in February.
In the following weeks, the EU – which in 2021 imported 45 per cent of its gas from Russia – scrambled to find alternative energy sources.
Now winter - delayed by an abnormally warm autumn - is almost here.
Amid fears of power cuts and blackouts, curtailing soaring household energy bills is the most pressing negotiation topic among EU Member States – as many Europeans will likely face the stark prospect of having to choose whether to heat or eat, at the expense of their health.
Demand for firewood has surged across Europe, as people return to a pre-industrial means of survival to get them through the winter - like in the “Middle Ages” scoffs Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As demand and prices for firewood rise inexorably, some have even fallen victim to online crooks pretending to sell wood pellets but who just took their money. Meanwhile across Europe - from Hungary to Poland to Latvia and Lithuania - governments are loosening forest protection rules to make it easier for people to access wood.
Yet, despite the war in Ukraine, none of this was inevitable.
The reason desperate people are turning to wood for warmth, is that public and private authorities in Europe have failed to insulate homes and buildings sufficiently or move to cleaner energy sources, either fast enough or at the necessary scale.
Despite climate and right-to-energy campaigners calling for change for decades, 75% of the EU’s building stock is deemed inefficient, leading to an estimated annual public health burden of more than €140 billion.
A License to Burn
But while people resorting to firewood to warm cold homes in war time is largely unavoidable and understandable, no such understanding should extend to those who are using this winter’s energy crisis to promote a policy which is already causing enormous damage to forests and the climate: the incentivising of burning wood for energy on an industrial scale.
The biomass sector – which has grown rich on taxpayer subsidies in recent years courtesy of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) - is trying to keep its incentives rolling by invoking the need to replace fossil fuels and the threat to Europe’s energy security, just as the RED is being revised.
In the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, bioenergy lobbyists called on the EU to “stop hesitating on bioenergy’s concrete contribution” to energy security. More than 500 companies involved in the bioenergy industry wrote to the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressing the importance of bioenergy for jobs, energy security and in achieving net-zero targets.
But the scientific case for rewarding the destruction of forest ecosystems in the name of clean energy is thoroughly discredited. The policy undermines the EU’s climate and biodiversity action by wreaking havoc in Europe’s ancient forests, as well as abroad, worsening the climate and biodiversity crises, causing enormous additional CO2 emissions and air pollution, and reducing forests’ ability to capture and store carbon. Moreover, the RED only deals with market incentives (it cannot “ban” anyone from burning anything) and with current energy prices energy companies nowadays are making profits burning wood without these incentives. Stopping the destructions caused by this industry is imperative, and the first step should be to stop rewarding it.
The RED trilogues – the final negotiations between the Parliament, the Commission and the Council of the EU before the legislation’s revision is adopted – have now started and offer EU lawmakers the opportunity to fix this senseless situation.
In September, the European Parliament proposed ending direct and indirect incentives for energy from primary woody biomass - although their definition of primary woody biomass contained many loopholes. The proposal is now on the EU negotiation table.
Instead of pumping billions of euros of taxpayers’ money every year into burning biomass, a wasteful absurdity that reduces available wood supplies for the other wood-using sectors, financial support should be redirected towards policies which work: for people, for forests and our climate.
In concrete terms, this means directing support to EU citizens to help them pay their energy bills; to proper insulation for homes and other buildings; to truly renewable energy, such as solar and geothermal; and to forest management systems such as close to nature forestry, which will help the sector adapt to – and fight – climate change.
Only then can we release the malign grip that fossil fuels – as well as burning wood on industrial scale – has on us, while guaranteeing our future energy security.
This article first appeared in Mongabay.