In the early hours of today, European Union (EU) negotiators concluded negotiations over the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). The outcome will not reduce the EU’s wood burning addiction to comply with its renewable targets. It will continue to have dire impacts on forests, which will lead to increased climate breakdown and the destruction of nature. It remains painfully far from the stark realities of the climate crisis and failed to put a stop to rewarding the most destructive practices.
Martin Pigeon, Forests & Climate campaigner with Fern, said: “When you’re speeding towards a cliff and close to the edge, reducing your speed just a little won’t save you. The Renewable Energy Directive will keep rewarding energy companies to burn millions of trees. Forests are our best chance of absorbing carbon dioxide, so today’s decision will continue to worsen the climate and biodiversity crises, harm people’s health, and actively undermine the EU’s climate ambitions – all at the taxpayer’s expense.”
Outcome of the negotiations
Once again, the biomass industry will get a free pass on the Emissions Trading System (ETS), releasing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, that were stored in functioning carbon sinks, without having to pay a cent. Burning all biomass feedstocks, including the most destructive for climate and biodiversity (“Coarse Woody Debris”, i.e. large pieces of dead wood), can still be counted by national governments towards their renewable energy targets.
In some aspects, the outcome is less ambitious than what the European Commission had proposed. The end of financial support to electricity from forest biomass has been considerably weakened, with loopholes like BioEnergy with Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS) confirmed. And the implementation of the ‘cascading principle’ (where wood is put into an order of value to create resource effectiveness) has been essentially gutted, meaning the principle will remain just a principle, without any teeth.
All the trees that do not have commercial value, but have immense climate and nature value, could remain game for the biomass industry, unless certain national legislations exclude certain primary or old growth forests.
A lack of public scrutiny leading to a negative compromise
The outcome strongly departs from the European Parliament’s vote. Many Member States’ officials used the Council and trilogue meetings’ secrecy to defend their forestry sector and reward energy companies burning forests, despite the climate and biodiversity crisis.
“Who heard that Germany, Luxemburg and sometimes Belgium and the Netherlands actually defended forests during the negotiations? That Spain opposed capping the growth of the biomass industry? That twelve national governments endorsed a letter drafted by a Finnish Energy official that repeated some of the lies of the industry’s lobbyists? That Sweden, the Presidency, refused to even discuss the Commission’s compromise proposals for a month, a position reflecting its own national interest more than that of all Member States? When the European Parliament debated these issues in public, its proposal ended up being much more in line with the emergency action warranted by the climate and biodiversity crisis. Secrecy defeats accountability, and for forests and democracy in Europe to have a future, this secretive way of reaching public decisions needs to stop,” added Martin Pigeon.
A few positives
This revision of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive is, technically, an incremental improvement on the previous version. The one thing left in the European Parliament’s initial mandate is the link made between national carbon sink targets (LULUCF) and their use of bioenergy, which has been strengthened. But Member States will be fined for the collapsing of their carbon sinks, not industry: if reaching LULUCF targets is impossible, taxpayers will simply pay twice.
Still on the positive side, “direct financial support” will no longer be possible for energy from wood that is normally used by other industries (“industrial grade roundwood”), or roots and stumps, which was the one concession given to the environment, since the extraction of tree roots and stumps is hugely harmful to forest soils and carbon stocks.
“Member States have just created future problem for themselves: incentivising bioenergy to this degree will mean failing to reach their national carbon sink targets, jeopardising the EU’s climate neutrality target,” added Pigeon.
All eyes on national lawmakers
A striking feature of this revision of the forest biomass rules is the importance given to national legislation. From the cascading principle to the definition of industrial grade roundwood and the protection of primary and old growth forests, national legislation is given supremacy – which, in a Single Market context, will keep pushing environmental standards down. On the other hand, Member States can establish additional, stricter sustainability criteria for themselves as well, which is important.
“The transposition of the directive in national law will give key opportunities to curtail the negative impacts of the RED. We call on national lawmakers to acknowledge the clear scientific evidence that burning trees negatively affects the climate in the crucial next decades,” said Pigeon.
Our concise analysis of the agreement:
Harmful aspects of the revision:
- No categories of biomass excluded from either 29.6 or 29.1 - the link between an exclusion of certain biomass feedstocks and the ETS zero-rating, as well as counting towards national targets, has been lost.
- What is left in terms of specific feedstocks ‘exclusions is the addition of Industrial Grande Roundwood to the list of feedstocks excluded from “direct financial support” in Article 3.3 (the addition of “direct” is a new loophole through which public support via lower tax rates for instance would not count).
- But… the addition of a grand-fathering clause in 29.15 leaves financial support in place for electricity-only installations who started operation after 2018, until 2030
- The cascading principle is gutted from the Commission’s compromise proposal’s good elements, and contains all the derogations requested by the Council: it remains a “principle” and not much more.
- The definition of “Industrial Grade Round Wood”, initially proposed as a compromise by the European Commission, has been weakened by the removal of the debarking language and adding a reference to “markets” in the “forest conditions”. No mention of Coarse Woody Debris, the other biomass feedstock proposed by the Commission on the basis of the JRC’s assessment as this biomass feedstock (dead wood) is the most sensitive from a climate and biodiversity perspective.
- No go areas (to which “old growth forests” have been added, but depending on their definitions in national legislation) are now under the risk based approach (=defined by national legislation) for all “a-countries”, no go areas remain horizontal (above national legislation) for “b-countries” (countries that do not have “national or subnational laws applicable in the area of harvest as well as monitoring and enforcement systems in place” ensuring that the RED’s sustainability criteria objectives are being aimed at).
- Council position is adopted for the GHG savings criteria, 70% for installations having started after 2021 and until 2029, 80% after 2030. This is not a criteria that will meaningfully limit installations.
- The loophole for outermost regions is maintained, for “a (undefined) limited period of time”.
- Review clause: the reference to a new “legislative proposal” by 2026 (from RED II) is gone, what is left is a Commission ‘report’ by 2027 on the impact of biomass support schemes on climate, biodiversity, market distortions etc. and possible further restrictions.
Positive aspects of the revision:
- The link to LULUCF targets is made stronger (“7a. The production of biofuels, bioliquids and biomass fuels from domestic forest biomass shall be consistent with Member States’ commitments and targets as defined in Regulation (EU) 2018/841”), with stricter monitoring and reporting rules for biomass in the NECPs (no separate plans) - Commission will assess compliance. Biomass imports remain off the hook, however.
- The threshold for applying the RED’s sustainability criteria is set at 7.5 MW
- No “direct financial support” to the production of energy from “the use of saw logs, veneer logs, industrial grade roundwood, stumps and roots to produce energy;” (see above for derogations, restrictions etc.)
- No new support, or renewal of any support, to electricity-only plants, minus those in just transition and outermost regions & those using BECCS. (see above for derogations, restrictions etc.)
- Member States can establish additional sustainability criteria for biomass fuels during transposition, COM will assess effect on internal market and might propose harmonisation later.