As we chart the recovery from COVID-19, governments around the world face a grave choice: continue along the path of planetary collapse, or embrace a sustainable future.
The European Commission, for one, has said that it will put its European Green Deal at the heart of its €670 billion recovery plan. “The simple fact is that the Green Deal made sense then [before the pandemic], and it makes even more sense now,” said Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans in early September. “The cost of climate action may seem high, but it is dwarfed by the cost of inaction.”
Yet good intentions and vast sums of public money are no guarantee of effective action. A stark example of this is the billions of euros that European Union (EU) Members spend every year funding a policy aimed at tackling the climate crisis, but which is actually making things even worse.
Since 2001, the EU has recognised ‘forest biomass’ as renewable energy, allowing Member States to promote it and to count its use towards renewable energy targets. This is despite the fact that burning biomass is also just burning carbon—and releasing it into the atmosphere. The EU justifies this continued burning by pointing out that forests continue to grow and store carbon from the atmosphere. But the truth is far more complicated.
The EU’s renewables policies have vastly expanded biomass burning – mostly wood – in power and heating plants across the continent. Today, forest biomass provides around 70 per cent of the feedstock used for EU bioenergy and more than 35 per cent of the renewable energy mix. But scientists warn that, rather than reducing emissions in a timeframe relevant for climate change mitigation, replacing fossil fuels with biomass can actually increase carbon-dioxide emissions for a long time.
Biomass is an atypical form of renewable energy, as it relies on burning a limited natural resource with relatively high ‘external costs’, from greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution to biodiversity loss.
These costs are currently not ‘priced-in’ to assessments of how to allocate public finance for renewable energy production and are thus additional costs borne by society at large. The most recent data from the Council of European Energy Regulators (CEER) shows that in 2016 and 2017, 20 Member States combined spent almost €9 billion on solid biomass for energy and heating through renewables support schemes alone, with Germany being by far the biggest spender.
This preferential treatment for biomass energy hinders the development of more innovative, cleaner technologies. While biomass-generated electricity plants rely on continuous aid to remain in operation, other technologies are left to struggle.
Current EU State aid rules are too lenient towards support for biomass energy. But change could be afoot. Next year the European Commission is expected to revise State aid rules for environmental protection and energy, in order to better match the aims of the European Green Deal and to ensure efficient use of public resources. This is the EU’s chance to stop encouraging investment in an outdated technology that is doing much harm to our climate, biodiversity and air quality.
Yet improving State aid rules is no silver bullet. The EU must also radically reconsider its treatment of biomass on a number of fronts, including under the Renewable Energy Directive and the EU Emission Trading System.
With the EU leading the world in investing in a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic – around 20% of its pledged funds are earmarked for climate and environmental protection – the pitfalls of lavishing vast sums on bioenergy over the last two decades should serve as a cautionary, timely lesson.
But it appears it is a lesson some countries may have missed. The German government has announced an objective to generate 42 terawatt hours of electricity from biomass and biogas to reach its 2030 climate targets.
This is not just a precautionary tale about the past, it is a story which is still unfolding, and one whose plot needs to rapidly change.