European Union "sustainability criteria" for biomass energy fail to protect the climate or our forests

The explosive growth in the wood pellet export market to Europe threatens to accelerate destructive clear-cutting in the remaining natural forests of the Southern United States, including our wetlands. Unfortunately, last week the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union) quietly floated a new—and shockingly deficient—proposal for sustainability criteria for this type of solid biomass, burned in European power plants to generate heat and electricity. The criteria effectively place no restrictions on sourcing wood for energy production—even if that wood is coming from some of the most valuable and sensitive forest ecosystems in the world—and ignore a key mechanism for ensuring that European utilities taking credit for carbon emissions reductions are actually delivering climate benefits, threatening to undermine the EU’s climate goals. 

Three deficiencies in particular stand out:

First, the draft criteria fail to require that biomass-burning utilities measure their carbon emissions impacts through the entire lifecycle of the biomass—meaning utility companies would be able to harvest and burn trees for energy production without having to account for the loss of those forest carbon sinks. This completely ignores the fact that forests absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and are therefore one of our most effective tools in combatting climate change. It’s also despite the fact that multiple scientific analyses—including a study conducted just this year by the Commission's own Joint Research Centre—have concluded that the climate impacts of burning wood for large-scale energy production cannot be fully gauged if changes in carbon stocks in the forest where the wood is being sourced from are not appropriately accounted for.

In fact, as we have previously reported, a growing body of scientific research shows that burning whole trees in power plants actually increases carbon emissions relative to fossil fuels for many decades—anywhere from 35 to 100 years or more.

Second, the draft sustainability criteria completely buy into industry claims that strong forest sustainability criteria are unnecessary for biomass because most of the wood imported to be burned in Europe’s power stations comes from highly regulated forests in North America, and not from countries with a “troubling history of land degradation such as Indonesia and Brazil”, as reported here

The reality, however, is far different.

In the Southern United States, the leading exporter of wood pellets to Europe, there are virtually no laws regulating industrial forestry on private lands, which make up 90% of the forests in the region. As we discussed here, while UK regulations strictly control large-scale tree-cutting, largely prohibit clear-cutting of wetland forests, and require specific management practices when forests are being harvested—and while other European countries completely outlaw clear-cutting—clear-cutting is a common logging practice in the US.

Tens of millions of acres of natural forests across this region—some of the most ecologically rich forests in the world—have already been destroyed to make way for fast-growing industrial tree plantations. This practice has contributed to a well-documented, significant decline in hardwood wetland forests and the near disappearance of entire ecosystems, such as the long-leaf pine savannahs. It has also brought countless species to the brink of extinction. 

European utilities are the biggest drivers of expanded wood pellet demand in the region, led by the UK’s Drax Power and its US-based supplier Enviva. Earlier this year, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that Enviva is clear-cutting sensitive wetland forests, and even buying wood from forests that are over 100 years old. The BBC likewise documented that the biomass energy industry is already using large quantities of wood from giant monoculture plantations, which drive conversion of natural forests, and is quietly harvesting wood from natural forests.

The massive fuel needs of these energy companies could double logging rates in the Southeast, threatening some of the most biologically-diverse forests in the world. 

Third, the proposed criteria guarantee existing investments, meaning sustainability criteria will only apply to bioenergy projects established after the date the final Directive is adopted. That means that existing biomass-burning facilities are grandfathered in and wouldn’t even have to comply with these weak standards!

Together, these policies send exactly the wrong signal to the marketplace, failing to push existing dirty biomass plants to clean up their act or new facilities to invest in low-carbon, more sustainable sources of biomass and truly clean energy technologies, such as energy efficiency, solar, wind, and geothermal.

The European Commission should be lauded for its efforts to transition Europe’s power sector away from fossil fuels and tackle climate change. But the EU’s environmental goals will be seriously undermined if the European Commission fails to take full responsibility for the rising demand for wood-generated electricity by EU utilities. It’s critical that the EC establishes truly rigorous and adequate biomass policies to protect our climate and our forests. If it continues to bury its head in the sand and ignore both science and on-the-ground realities, the EC risks being responsible for irreversible damage to our cherished Southern forests and reversing progress on addressing climate change.