New EU biomass rules: a crushing defeat for forests

13 April 2023

New EU biomass rules: a crushing defeat for forests

The revision of the European Union’s renewable energy directive (RED) was largely finalised in Brussels, 31 March 2023, with the last trilogue negotiation. As yet unpublished, the text’s main elements are known – and disastrous for global forests and EU democracy.

On forest biomass, the outcome was a crushing defeat for the European Parliament, NGOs and scientists, who had hoped to preserve forests and the climate from the ballooning threat of a biomass industry that benefits from unlimited incentives, created by the RED, to log and burn trees for energy. More than half the EU’s wood harvest is burned for energy today, and the proportion is increasing.

The European Parliament’s position would have gone a long way towards stopping the most perverse effects for forests of the EU’s biomass rules, by limiting biomass incentives to wood-processing residues and putting an overall cap on Member State’s interest in pushing the industry. But after 15 hours of negotiations, hardly any of Parliament’s amendments survived. This, although a 60 per cent Parliament majority had voted in plenary to remove burning primary woody biomass (largely, forest biomass) from the directive’s incentives and targets: no longer counting its CO2 emissions as ‘zero’, giving it no more financial support, and capping so-called ‘renewable’ biomass energy to current levels of use – or in a way that preserves each Member State’s carbon sink.

The Swedish presidency of the Council of the EU, representing all national energy ministries in the negotiation, bulldozed most of the European Parliament’s proposals out of the final text. It forced Parliament to accept the default situation: CO2 emissions from forest biomass burning will be still considered as zero, burning all trees and tree parts not worth more money as something else can still be rewarded with public financial support (with some exceptions), and Member States can still count the resulting energy towards their national renewable energy targets. These targets were increased from 30 per cent to 42.5 per cent of the overall energy mix by 2030.

The few exceptions to these rules, for example for the protection of primary and old growth forests, wetlands and natural reserves, or preserving competing industries’ access to wood supply, will essentially be driven by national legislation (see our analysis). But we are not optimistic about this since national authorities’ track record in stopping the destruction of the most precious forests in Europe (e.g., Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Poland and Romania) and abroad is abysmal.

Other scraps leftover from the European Parliament’s position were: stronger reporting and monitoring obligations for Member States, also as part of their National energy and climate plans (NECPs), and stricter compliance with the new 2030 national carbon sink targets that Member States adopted the week before (under LULUCF – nearly all of the EU’s land carbon sink comes from forests capturing atmospheric CO2). This new LULUCF target requires a minimum increase of the EU land sink from an estimated -212 million tonnes (Mt) in 2021 to -290Mt by 2030, and a reversal of the deep degradation trend in the EU’s land sink observed over the last decade, partly caused by the additional logging pressure from biomass. But according to the European Environment Agency analysis of Member State projections, “measures currently in place will not be sufficient to reverse this trend”.

The biomass industry has succeeded in externalising their costs onto the broader public. As with the subsidies and tax rebates to the biomass industry, the fines paid by Member States for missing their LULUCF targets will be paid by citizens through their taxes. The additional damage to humanity’s life support systems – forests and our climate, will be borne by everyone.

From the first days, many national ministries were against the Parliament’s position with explicit support coming only from those of Germany and Luxembourg, and on some issues the Netherlands and Belgium (Denmark’s support for strong biomass sustainability criteria ended after a government change).

Exchanges among national ministries in the Council are rarely public: it is difficult for the media and citizens to hold their governments to account. When responsible policy-making comes at the cost of having to inconvenience powerful economic interests and cut CO2 emissions more, secrecy is a friend to those preferring convenience.

Among these, the national energy ministries of Finland, France, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria pushed strongly against Parliament’s position, repeating biomass lobbyists’ arguments. Those of Portugal, Italy, Ireland Spain and others either looked the other way or joined the opposition.

Sweden, which had initially opposed revising these rules at all, used its Presidency to frame the complex negotiations to support its priorities, and used the lack of a clear negotiation mandate from other Member States to prioritise its own red lines in the trilogue talks with Parliament and the European Commission. On forest biomass sustainability rules, Sweden flatly refused everything the Parliament offered – even the mere exclusion of dead wood from subsidies, despite overwhelming evidence that its extraction is a disaster for forest biodiversity and soils.

The lead negotiator for Parliament, German conservative Markus Pieper, made no mystery of his personal hostility to reform biomass rules, which certainly did not help the MEP in charge of defending the Parliament’s position on forest protection in the talks, German socialist Tiemo Wölken. Wölken later lamented that “Member States were unwilling to take an honest look at the unsustainable use of forest biomass”.

Addressing the climate crisis, and therefore increasing forests’ resilience has never been more urgent. By manufacturing doubt on the science pertaining to the climate and biodiversity impacts of its business, the biomass industry made it possible for reform-reluctant politicians and governments to ignore it. By contrast Parliament, whose members are directly elected and whose debates and votes are public, had little influence on the final outcome, which the Commission’s DG Energy calls a “balanced compromise”.


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Categories: Forest Watch, Bioenergy

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