During the ongoing revision of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED), the bioenergy industry has consistently tried to gut the European Parliament’s proposed environmental safeguards for forest biomass, even resorting to outright lies such as pretending the Parliament wanted a “ban on using primary woody biomass” whereas they were only proposing to ban rewarding the most destructive biomass practices with taxpayer money and other incentives.
NGOs, on the other hand, believe that although the safeguards are better than the current ineffective framework, they are still not nearly strong enough. On 12 January 2023, Bioenergy Europe (“the voice of European bioenergy”) told its members its ambition was to “delete” legislative proposals it dislikes and dismantle what remains of Parliament’s guardrail proposals. Sadly, given this lobby’s network of powerful industry allies (the agribusiness and energy sectors also support RED rewards on biomass), such bravado may prove justified unless other EU institutions find the will to force a decent compromise, and protect taxpayers’ interest.
The RED presently enables Member States to subsidise the biomass industry by billions of euros annually. The Commission’s 2021 impact assessment puts direct subsidies at €10.3 billion and BirdLife estimates indirect subsidies through free carbon dioxide permits were worth €12 billion in 2019. Trinomics research confirms the growth of subsidies for energy from solid biomass, indicating that “many governments are doubling down on bioenergy and making it central to their plans to tackle climate change, despite its many risks to people and the planet.”
Unfortunately – and illogically at a time when Science is explaining that climate collapse is closer than previously anticipated – the proportion of whole trees, including from primary forests, burned for energy also is increasing; in 2005, 41 per cent of the EU wood harvest was burned; in 2017, at least 55 per cent was. The biomass industry acknowledges they’re burning whole trees now (‘low-quality stemwood’). A whistleblower from a leading pellet exporter to the EU, said:
“The company says that we use mostly waste, like branches, treetops and debris to make pellets […] What a joke. We use 100% whole trees in our pellets. We hardly use any waste. Pellet density is critical. You get that from whole trees, not junk.”
In 2020, EU Member States obtained about 40 per cent of their declared renewable energy by burning “solid biomass fuels”, and were rewarded by RED incentives that hardly differentiate between types of wood, quality of forest management, or whether fossil fuels were replaced.
But there are alternatives.
Taxpayer monies could be redirected towards foresters who transition to close-to-nature forestry; energy providers investing in cleaner renewables; and helping EU citizens to insulate their homes to reduce total energy demand (FW 277). Trinomics has shown that diverting subsidies for electricity from biomass to home insulation could reduce energy use for heating by 15 to 20 per cent, saving hundreds of Euros per household.
As RED negotiations conclude in the coming weeks and increasing numbers of scientists and NGOs raise concern that the status quo on the RED’s biomass incentives cannot be justified, EU decision-makers must accept the solutions that reduce citizen’s energy bills and increase forests’ ability to store carbon and survive the climate crisis.