Despite the worsening climate crisis and the destruction of forests in Europe and abroad, on 28 and 29 June 2022, a large majority of EU countries, led primarily by Scandinavian, Baltic and Central and Eastern European governments, adopted dangerous opinions on the revisions of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry Regulation (LULUCF). With the Council defending the status quo, and prioritising the short-term interests of the forestry and bioenergy industries over the long-term health of forests, it is now up to the European Parliament and Commission to reaffirm the rules’ purpose and restrict loopholes.
Member States chose to continue spending taxpayer money – about 20 billion Euros a year in direct and indirect financial support – to incentivise the forest destruction associated with burning biomass (FW 276). Such resources could be spent on more sensible initiatives, such as rewarding foresters who transition to close-to-nature forestry practices, supporting energy providers investing in cleaner renewables, or helping EU citizens to insulate their homes to reduce total energy demand.
The Council gutted the Commission’s legislative proposal to protect primary/old-growth forests from biomass incentives; undermining the prioritisation of carbon-storing uses for wood over energy (the “cascading principle”); and helping more energy installations bypass sustainability criteria altogether, by raising the threshold for applying them from 5 megawatts (MW) to 10MW.
They also proposed to ‘fast-track’ approval procedures for biomass installations, exempting them from environmental impact assessments in certain areas – something the Commission proposal had not deemed acceptable in its REPowerEU Communication which followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Council capitulated to the pressures of Member States overly dependent on bioenergy and ignored the fact that RED’s incentivisation of wood-burning for energy means that, today, about 55 per cent of the EU wood harvest gets sent up in smoke, up from slightly more than 40 per cent in 2005. During this time, the capacity of forests to absorb carbon declined by 28 per cent.
Fern hopes that the Parliament’s final RED position in mid-September will promote more constructive use of taxpayer funds. Sadly there were no signs that this would be the case when the Parliament’s Industry and Research Committee (ITRE) adopted its report on 13 July. They failed to fix RED’s flaws and gutted the proposal to end public support for producing electricity from burning biomass. There is still time, however, to battle the strong lobbying exerted by the biomass industry (in particular United States (US) wood pellet producers and their political allies in the US Congress). Members of the European Parliament are being urged to listen to those raising alarm bells that wood burning is bad for health, and that incentivising wasteful uses of wood at a time when Russia’s war on Ukraine is already causing a severe supply crunch really does not make sense.
The LULUCF Regulation, intended to codify climate ambition and accounting rules for the land and forest sector, fared little better in the Council, where loopholes and shortcuts were emphasised.
A target of -310 Million tonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide sequestration by 2030 in the LULUCF sector was maintained, in keeping with Commission and Parliament proposals, but well below the -600Mt civil society had asked for. Even this risks being undermined by increased “flexibilities” – accounting tricks allowing one country’s overachievement to count towards another country’s failure.
Natural disturbances such as beetle outbreaks and storm destruction, that harm forests’ capacity to sequester carbon could also be written off with flexibilities. This loophole is not negligible: 35 million cubic meters of European wood are on average damaged by natural disturbances each year, resulting in an annual 35Mt of lost carbon sequestration.
Additionally, offsetting has made a comeback. Member States would like to use up to 71Mt of offsetting credits towards compliance, which – through obscure calculations – could trigger access to another “bonus flexibility” of up to 50Mt.
The Council also proposed ways to avoid penalties for missing yearly targets, and asks the Commission to explore further problematic methods, such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), despite many scientists’ grave doubts that it will ever work.
The alarming news that intensive logging in Estonia and Finland has caused the land use sector to emit more carbon dioxide than it absorbs (FW 276) underscores the fact that the climate is not fooled by accounting prestidigitation. Now, as the European Parliament and the Council seek compromise on the LULUCF file, it is up to Parliament to withstand the pressure that will confront them.