On 5 April, the Forest Defenders Alliance published an impactful visual investigation, revealing that “many wood-burning power plants and wood pellet manufacturing plants in the EU appear to be using trees logged directly from forests, despite claims to use sawdust and other mill waste for fuel and feedstock”. Surprisingly, industry confirmed the report’s findings, proving the importance of ensuring that the EU’s renewed Renewable Energy Directive (RED) takes a strong line on which types of material should, and should not be burnt.
Whilst Bioenergy Europe, the EU lobby group of the biomass industry, claims that 69.6 per cent of the feedstock used for bioenergy in the EU is “forestry and wood industry residues”, the use of whole trees is well documented. In the United States, the corporation Enviva was again lambasted, 22 April, for turning entire forests into wood pellets to be shipped to the EU. The Forest Defenders Alliance showed that European wood pellet companies are also using tree trunks.
If whole trees are burnt to replace coal for electricity or heat production, it has a disastrous impact on the climate, forests and biodiversity; even in the best-case scenario, it would take seven decades to reach carbon parity with coal.
The lobby group Bioenergy Europe, told Politico that it was common practice to use low-quality stemwood for bioenergy: “Wood that is contaminated by rot, fungi, char, or is misshapen is often rejected by other industries (e.g., furniture, construction, etc.) and is unsuited for any other commercial use than bioenergy because those other sectors refuse to accept this low-quality material.”
This means that EU bioenergy incentives are causing the logging of trees that would not have been logged otherwise. If trees had been left standing they would have kept removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and maintained the forests’ vital functions. Instead, the carbon sinks and habitats that we and nature so badly need are destroyed.
“Low-quality stemwood” can also have other commercial uses such as for particle boards, pulp and paper, but biomass subsidies distort the wood market so much that bioenergy outcompetes other actors who would produce longer lasting products. The director of one of the biomass plants featured in the report confirmed this to the Dutch newspaper Telegraaf, going so far as to welcome the Dutch government’s recent proposal to phase-out biomass subsidies: “That phase-out is a good thing. The high demand for woody biomass from biomass plants must be contained. Lately I have seen in the market that wood that is too good is being bought for biomass. That is what you get, now that too many biomass plants have been built, in part thanks to the subsidies” (translated from Dutch).
The Dutch government has just decided to end public subsidies for new biomass plants supplying heat networks. Now is the time for the EU to follow these steps and stop rewarding the destruction of forests in its renewable energy policy; as UN Secretary General António Guterres put it, “to avert climate catastrophe, the main emitters must drastically cut emissions starting this year”.