On 14 September 2022, the European Parliament voted on proposals to amend the EU‘s Renewable Energy Directive (RED). Changing problematic incentives for burning forest biomass was the most contentious issue in an otherwise fairly consensual file, as most MEPs agree that overall renewable energy ambitions should be considerably increased.
The scale at which Europe burns wood – sometimes whole trees (FW 275) – for energy production is extremely destructive. It was therefore positive that the Parliament voted to end national support schemes (subsidies) for burning “primary woody biomass” (unprocessed wood), and to cap at current levels the share of renewable energy from this source that Member States can claim toward their EU targets. In principle this is a significant advance, as no meaningful restriction exists on either biomass feedstocks or incentives for burning primary woody biomass under the present RED. If the foreseen cap is indeed “phased down”, which remains uncertain, this could limit the incentives that send about 55 per cent of the EU wood harvest up in smoke (FW 277), and have caused precious forests to be logged that would otherwise have been left standing.
There was real concern, however, about the weakening of what constitutes “primary woody biomass” in the RED. MEPs added a long list of exemptions onto the internationally accepted definition: for instance, trees cut down for fire prevention, for road safety or, more nebulously, “affected by natural disasters, active pests or diseases”, are still fair game if they result in more resilient forests (based on as-yet non-existent guidelines from the Commission).
This greatly undermines the integrity of the proposed measures and their possible implementation, as pests, natural disasters and disease prevention are all familiar justifications for timber extraction, even in protected areas and Natura 2000 sites (see for example, C‑441/17, Bialowieza). Importantly, though, MEPs supported the European Commission’s proposal to exclude wood from primary and old-growth forests, as well as wetlands, from what can be considered “sustainable”.
Recent analysis in Science indicates that climate tipping points are closer than previously realised. Fern campaigner Martin Pigeon said, “The European Parliament’s opinion on woody biomass as a source of energy remains painfully far from the stark realities of the climate crisis … we don’t have the decades needed for trees that are cut and burnt to grow back and recapture the carbon dioxide emitted.”
As the proposal moves to tripartite negotiations in the coming weeks, campaigners will focus on defending the useful elements in the Parliament’s proposal as the bioenergy industry is known to be lobbying hard and a large number of Member States have already echoed their messaging in the Council’s July Opinion. The Parliament’s and the Council’s positions are far apart, and the need to take into account REPowerEU elements (an additional RED amendment to boost renewable energy deployment which was proposed as a response to Russia’s aggression of Ukraine) will further complicate the negotiation process. This in turn, risks delaying the adoption of the RED revision (REDIII) until early 2023, under the Swedish Presidency. Notably, Sweden has been a vocal supporter of the bioenergy and forestry industries so far.