In recent years, European power plants have reduced their coal consumption by burning something else: millions of tons of wood, much of it imported from the United States.
A controversial European Union policy called the Renewable Energy Directive has driven this transition by viewing biomass – organic material like wood, burned as fuel – as renewable energy and subsidizing its use. A transatlantic industry has developed, logging American forests and turning the material into pellets, which are then shipped to Europe. But critics have long argued that the subsidies actually have little climate benefit and should be scrapped.
Late Tuesday in Brussels, a committee of the European Parliament voted to make substantial changes to both the way the Union subsidizes biomass and the way it accounts for emissions from its combustion – policies with major consequences if they are adopted by the whole Parliament. This is part of a larger package of climate policies that would change not only the way Europe generates electricity in the years to come, but also the way the European Union meets its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse effect.
“This vote is a historic breakthrough,” said Martin Pigeon, a forest and climate activist at Fern, a nonprofit group focused on European forests. “For the first time, a major EU regulator is making it clear that one of the most climate-damaging European policies of the past decade, incentivizing the burning of forests in the name of renewable energy, must end.”
Europe is moving away from fossil fuels
The European Union has started a transition to greener forms of energy. But financial and geopolitical considerations could complicate efforts.
Wood, of course, is different from oil or coal, because trees can regrow, removing planet-warming carbon dioxide from the air. But it takes an average of a century for carbon dioxide emissions from burned wood to be reabsorbed in a growing forest, during which time the released carbon dioxide contributes to global warming. Burning wood to generate electricity also releases more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels to produce the same amount of energy. But under previous European Union rules, emissions from biomass were not counted in the bloc’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.
Other changes proposed this week would eliminate most public financial support for biomass, including direct subsidies and indirect measures like rebates or tax credits. The rules also begin to account for emissions from biomass and restrict access to “certain types of ‘green’ finance.”
Bas Eickhout, a Dutch politician and member of the European Parliament who advocated for the revisions, said they would take an important step by defining “primary woody biomass”, which is essentially wood harvested directly from forests. (The definition agreed this week offers exceptions for wood from trees damaged by fires, pests and disease.) “It would reduce incentives to burn wood for energy,” Eickhout said, encouraging the use of industrial waste, such as scrap or sawdust, rather than unprocessed wood, as well as focusing on other forms of renewable energy.
But not everyone is happy with the proposed changes. A coalition of 10 European Union member states, led by Sweden, issued a statement this winter saying the amendments jeopardized Europe’s ability to meet its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.
“These frequent changes in the legislative framework undermine market stability and hamper the willingness to invest in renewable energy,” said Khashayar Farmanbar, Sweden’s energy minister, who was one of the authors of the letter. He added that reduced biomass availability would make Europe’s energy transition “more difficult, including rapidly phasing out fossil fuels from Russia”.
Representatives of the wood pellet industry have also raised objections. “Excluding primary biomass would set back efforts to ensure European energy security, raise energy prices for consumers and put EU climate goals out of reach,” wrote the US Industrial Pellet. Association, an industry group, in a statement.
Biomass has experienced tremendous growth over the past decade. Before the adoption of the Renewable Energy Directive in 2009, which categorized it as renewable, hardly any European energy came from biomass. Since then, it has grown into a $10 billion-a-year industry and now produces around 60% of what the European Union considers renewable energy.
These wood-fired power plants would be allowed to continue operating under the revised policy, although they would no longer be eligible for subsidies. Last year was the first time that biomass in Europe was profitable without government support. This has raised concerns about the continued burning of wood, said Mary S. Booth, an environmentalist and director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a nonprofit group that promotes data-driven policy. “Burning wood emits carbon,” she said. “It’s basic physics.”
The effects of Tuesday’s changes could extend across the Atlantic to the southeast United States, where much of Europe’s biomass is harvested. More than a million acres of American forest have been cut for biomass, amplifying climate risks like flooding and landslides.
Yet this week’s vote is only the first step in a long process. After leaving the Environment Committee, the proposed changes will still need to be passed by the European Parliament this summer, leaving time for lobbying and other amendments. If the measure passes, national governments will still have to enact the changes into law.
In addition to forest products, changes to food and feed biofuel standards were also adopted by the committee. Mr Eickhout also advocated for changes to limit the use of biofuels in transport, citing current food price spikes. This week, the committee called for a phase-out of commodities like palm and soy from next year. These are crops that often lead to changes in land use, including deforestation.