News

Much ado about nothing – how the review of EU bioenergy legislation turned into a puff of smoke

Much ado about nothing – how the review of EU bioenergy legislation turned into a puff of smoke

On July 14, the anniversary of the French Revolution, the European Commission published “Fit-for-55”: a package of proposals designed to revolutionise climate legislation, with the overall aim of reducing the EU’s emissions by 55% by 2030. One key proposal is to review the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which addresses the thorny topic of bioenergy.

The European Commission is well aware of the threat posed by bioenergy. Its own Joint Research Centre published a study demonstrating that most bioenergy from forest biomass poses a risk to climate and biodiversity.

In the run-up to the publication of the Fit-for-55 package, Commission Vice President Timmermans himself had promised to make sure that bioenergy would “not do more harm than good”. He was well aware of the many voices speaking up against bioenergy. Earlier this year, 500 scientists sent an open letter to the Commission, warning that “The burning of wood will increase warming for decades to centuries. That is true even when the wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas”. On top of that, more than 250,000 people signed a petition calling on the EU to protect forests and not burn them for energy.

And yet, despite the Commission’s own research, despite the science, despite the voice of the people, despite common sense; the European Commission chose to support the burning of forest biomass in the reviewed Renewable Energy Directive after all.

Intense lobbying pressure from member states, led by Finland and Sweden (where private forestry interests are very powerful) proved to be stronger than facts and the general interest.

Fundamentally, very little has changed: the burning of forest biomass (including whole trees and large-diameter stems) can continue to be subsidised as renewable energy by member states and will continue to be falsely counted as zero-carbon. 

The RED proposal includes some small exceptions, but they’re problematic too:

  • Wood cannot be harvested for bioenergy from primary or high-biodiverse forests. These, however, only constitute about 3% of Europe’s forests and are mostly already protected, leaving 97% of forests open for exploitation.
  • The proposal also stipulates that “Member States shall grant no support for the use of saw logs, veneer logs, stumps and roots to produce energy”.
    While it is important to end the extraction of stumps and roots, saw logs and veneer logs are hardly ever burned for energy, because of their high market value. These measures still allow the vast majority of other forest wood (including stems) to be burned. 
  • From 2027 onwards, the burning of wood in electricity-only installations shall no longer be subsidised; except in “regions identified in a territorial just transition plan… due to their reliance on solid fossil fuels.” That is euphemism for coal-dependent regions. This opens the door wide for wood burning in old coal-fired power stations.
  • The threshold at which installations must apply the so called “sustainability criteria” has been reduced from 20MW to 5MW.

Despite the Commission selling these small provisions as a “significant strengthening of sustainability criteria for biomass”, in reality, they will not help.

Regarding transport biofuels, the proposal leaves a cap on the use of food and feed crops for biofuels and biogas at the current level, instead of phasing them out. However, as the 7% cap is now calculated as a percentage of “energy in transport”, instead of “road transport” (therefore including shipping and aviation), the total amount of admissible food-based biofuels has in fact significantly increased.

The Commission’s proposal for the RED review will now pass through the co-decision process (likely to last at least a year), during which the European Parliament and Council will have the opportunity to amend the existing proposal.

At Birdlife Europe and Central Asia, we will continue to work with our partners to fight the destructive scam that is the burning of forest biomass for energy and protect the living world.