On 26 May 2021, the Estonian European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson was addressing the European Parliament on a policy file her administration was developing: the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). Expected to be published by the European Commission next July 14, the policy proposal, she said, had sparked a “huge debate in the EU […] Especially on bioenergy derived from forests.” The debate is indeed huge, with forest NGOs and scientists calling on the European Commission not to yield to ongoing industry pressure to preserve flawed logic and misguided subsidies."
Currently, the RED allows Member States to subsidise burning whole trees for energy because it considers they are a “zero carbon” source of energy − a premise that may once have sounded plausible (“trees grow back”), but is profoundly wrong today, as the Commission’s own research reveals (FW 262).
Trees are increasingly harvested in clear cuts with heavy machinery that deeply damages soils, and burning wood emits the highest amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) (and toxic fine particles) of all fuels (fossils included) per unit of energy produced. Given current levels of atmospheric CO2, not only is it ill-advised to burn carbon sinks rather than let them grow, we also do not have the luxury of waiting decades for trees to grow back. The subsidisation of wood burning is a false climate solution and must stop immediately.
But bioenergy and forestry industries have no intention of giving up the more than €6 billion in yearly subsidies, and for the past 18 months have deployed a very strong lobbying effort to maintain the status quo. The most obvious culprits include the Bioenergy Europe lobby group, which represents large wood-pellet interests such as Enviva (US), Graanul (Estonia), Drax (UK), and Valmet (Finland), but also very large energy companies such as EDF, Sumitomo Corporation, Total, Veolia, and Engie.
Bioenergy’s honeypot has also attracted large companies operating coal-fired power plants interested in converting them to burning trees, which would keep industrial assets in use – e.g., Bioenergy Europe member EP Power Europe, a subsidiary of Czech group EPH which has been buying coal assets on the cheap all over Europe, betting on the time it would take to the EU to switch from coal to renewables and now making “spectacular investments in renewable energy sources (mainly in biomass)”.
They are joined by the traditional forestry sector: in Scandinavia, for instance, sawmills have long used residues for power generation, and have no wish to forego additional subsidies they receive under RED, as underscored in a 26 May lobbying letter arguing against changing the current RED legislation.
The sector’s most prominent allies are the governments of Sweden and Finland, two countries where forestry is still perceived as a strategic part of the country’s identity despite recent rifts in these governments on the bioenergy issue; their prime ministers’ April 2021 joint letter to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reveals the political reach those industries enjoy, successfully demanding that references to “close-to-nature” forestry practices be removed from a technical text driving “green” private investments, the “sustainable finance taxonomy”.
Bioenergy interests must not prevail over science and common sense. In its RED proposal, the Commission must defend our common future, rather than the short-term interests of private actors.