Will Europe Stop Trashing US Forests in the Name of Bioenergy?

EU Commission international stakeholder meeting to consult on the future of EU bioenergy policy
Credit: Kenneth Richter

The European Union finally recognises that burning trees from US forests is not carbon-neutral, but how will they amend European renewables policy in response?

This is a guest blog by Kenneth Richter. Kenneth is a Germany-based consultant to NRDC and has worked on biomass issues for 8 years.

Since 2010, NRDC’s Our Forests Aren’t Fuel campaign to save Southeast forests from logging for bioenergy has sounded the alarm about this issue and targeted the European Union for reform.

In 2009, the EU passed binding legislation to ensure the EU meets its climate and energy targets, including a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a requirement that 20% of EU energy be generated from renewable sources, and a 20% improvement in energy efficiency, all by 2020. While laudable, the policy package came with a gaping loophole around bioenergy: all biomass, whether wood chips and sawdust from a sawmill or whole trees from old growth forests, was considered “carbon neutral”.  In other words, when biomass is burned in European power stations, the EU acts like the carbon emissions coming out of the smokestack simply don’t exist. 

And we’re talking about a lot of emissions. The latest and best science tells us that when we burn many forms of biomass for electricity—in particular whole trees and other large-diameter wood—carbon emissions increase for decades compared to coal. Today, nearly two-thirds of the EU’s renewables target is being met by burning biomass.

As the European Commission called an international stakeholder meeting to consult on the future of its bioenergy policy, I travelled to Brussels to attend and to bring NRDC’s evidence to the table. Increasingly, the biomass we’re burning in the European Union is coming from the wood pellet mills of the U.S. Southeast. The region is now the world’s top exporter of wood for energy production. Misguided bioenergy policy in the EU is driving demand for wood pellets from these forests, putting millions of uncounted tons of carbon into the atmosphere and putting at risk some of the world’s most biodiverse and precious forests.

On the way to the Commission building came a sobering moment when we passed Maelbeek Metro Station, where flowers reminded of the recent bomb attack.

Once past security and inside the building, we arrived in an oval-shaped room packed with EU politicians, scientists, and representatives of industry and civil society. 

Right at the top, the European Commission’s representative acknowledged the remarkable fact that over 56,000 supporters of NRDC and its allies had written to the Commission to express their concern about the destruction of US forests, asking them to stop incentivizing the use of trees for fuel in EU renewable energy policies. 

After that, much of the day was taken up by bioenergy industry representatives re-stating their positions, at one point provoking unintentional hilarity when citing the production of oxygen by plants as an argument to continue unabated bioenergy incentives.

But then the science panel was called and made some remarkably clear statements: Despite some disagreement over exact figures for various bioenergy scenarios, they all agreed that bioenergy is not carbon-neutral. (One scientist sneakily called it “70% carbon-neutral”, which of course means not carbon-neutral).

NRDC had recently demonstrated the real carbon emissions of using wood pellets sourced from Southeastern forests to produce electricity used for bioenergy, which found that when pellets are comprised of anywhere from 40 to 70 percent, it takes approximately 55 years for forest regrowth to recapture enough carbon from the atmosphere to reduce a power station’s cumulative emissions below those of coal. At levels greater than 40 percent, pellets emit more carbon than coal for most of this period.

Echoing these findings, Lisa Marelli, the scientist from the EU Commission’s own research body, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), pointed out that the current methodology used in the EU excludes biogenic carbon emissions of bioenergy and “consequently, doesn’t provide an estimate of actual GHG emissions savings compared to a fossil fuel alternative”.

She demonstrated that the use of forest biomass can actually result in a worsening of climate change over a period of over 40 years or more (depending on decay rates were that biomass to instead be left on the forest floor).

Presentation of Lisa Marelli, EU Commission Joint Research Centre
Credit: Kenneth Richter

Asked whether bioenergy can be assumed carbon-neutral, Marelli responded with an emphatic “definitely not”.

These are strong words from a representative of the Commission’s own research body. Unfortunately, they are in direct conflict with current EU policy, which still assumes all bioenergy to be inherently carbon neutral and encourages EU member states to subsidise it as such.

Over the course of the day, the European Commission also heard evidence from stakeholders on the negative impacts on biodiversity and on affected communities. Staff from allied EU NGOs and I were able to relay how, on a recent trip to the Southeast, we saw firsthand the devastating clearcuts of threatened bottomland hardwood forest that previously had been teeming with wildlife.

Clear-cut of wetland forest in North Carolina. The wood is used to make pellets for biomass-burning power stations in Europe
Credit: Kenneth Richter

We simply can’t wait decades to begin reducing carbon emissions from our power sector, all the while destroying the very forests that are one of our best tools for fighting climate change and providing a host of other ecosystem services. The question is now: How will the European Commission respond to this evidence, including its own research body stating that bioenergy is “definitely not carbon neutral”?

Today, millions in European taxpayer resources—money that could be used to support truly clean energy technologies, such as solar and wind—is wasted on a dirty form of electricity that destroys forests and worsens climate change rather than mitigating it. A proposal on how to reform EU bioenergy renewables policy is expected by the end of the year. In the meantime, we need to keep the pressure on policymakers and make sure the EU’s 2030 climate and energy package does not continue to drive the destruction of US forests in the name of renewable energy.

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