New European biomass rules spell disaster for forests

CO2 emissions from the burning of forest biomass will continue to be considered zero, the burning of trees and their parts can still be supported by public subsidies. It will mean complete destruction for European forests, which are already under severe pressure today. Photo by Traumrune, WmC

At the last meeting trialogue, at which representatives of the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission meet, the revision of the European directive on renewable energy sources (RED) was largely completed on March 31, 2023. Although it has not yet been published in its entirety, the main parts of the text are already known — and they mean a disaster not only for the world’s forests, but also for European democracy.

On the issue of forest biomass, the outcome of the negotiations is a crushing defeat for the European Parliament, non-governmental organizations and scientists who hoped to protect forests and the climate from the rapidly growing threat from the biomass industry. The latter benefits from unlimited incentives to harvest and burn trees for energy production, created precisely on the basis of the Renewable Sources Directive. At the present time more than half of harvested wood in the European Union burns, and this share is still grows.

The changes proposed by the European Parliament in the rules for biomass were supposed to limit incentives only to the use of residues after wood processing and set an overall limit for member states to promote the use of biomass. This would significantly reduce the worst consequences that the current use of biomass means for European forests.

However, after fifteen hours of negotiations, almost all of the European Parliament’s amendments were swept off the table. And this despite the fact that at the plenary session of the parliament, a sixty percent majority voted to delete the burning of primary woody biomass, mainly forest biomass, from the incentives and objectives of the directive.

According to parliamentary proposals, CO2 emissions from burning wood biomass would no longer be considered “zero”. Its burning would no longer be financially supported, and so-called “renewable” energy from biomass should be limited to the current level of use — or used in a way that guarantees a decrease in carbon emissions in each member state.

Sweden, which presides over the Council of the EU and whose representatives represented the national ministries responsible for energy during the negotiations, excluded most of the proposals of the European Parliament from the final form of the text.

The result is thus similar to the baseline: CO2 emissions from the burning of forest biomass will continue to be considered zero, the burning of trees and their parts can still be supported by public subsidies (with some exceptions) and member states can continue to include the energy thus obtained in their national targets in the field of renewable energy sources. These were simultaneously increased from thirty percent to 42.5 percent by 2030.

The few exceptions to these rules, for example to protect native and old-growth forests, wetlands and nature reserves or to maintain access to timber supplies by competing industries, will essentially follow national legislation. However, there is no reason for optimism in this direction either, because the approach of national authorities to the destruction of the most valuable European forests in Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Polish or Romania it is appalling.

From the point of view of the European Parliament, only a stricter monitoring and reporting obligation on the part of individual member states will be reflected in the new form of the directive, even within national energy and climate plans (NECP), as well as stricter national carbon reduction targets by 2030, which member states adopted a week earlier in the area of ​​land use, land use change and forestry (so-called LULUCF). Almost all carbon sequestration on the European mainland is due to forests absorbing atmospheric CO2.

The new land use and forestry targets envisage an increase in soil carbon sequestration (the so-called carbon sink) from an estimated 212 million tonnes in 2021 to 290 million tonnes by 2030, reversing the opposite trend of carbon sink degradation over the past decade, which was partly caused by increased pressure on wood extraction from biomass. According to analysis of plans of Member States carried out by the European Environment Agency, however, “currently implemented measures will not be sufficient to reverse the trend”.

The biomass industry has managed to externalize its costs and transfer them to the shoulders of the whole society. As is the case with subsidies and tax breaks, the fines of Member States for failure to meet targets in the area of ​​land use, land use change and forestry will be paid by citizens from their taxes. The subsequent impacts on the forests and climate, on which our lives depend, will be borne by all of us.

States versus the European Parliament

From the beginning, a number of national ministries opposed the parliamentary position — only Germany and Luxembourg expressed explicit support for it, and on some issues also the Netherlands and Belgium. Denmark’s support for stricter criteria ended with the new government.

The exchange of positions between individual national ministries in the European Council is rarely public: it is therefore difficult for the media and citizens to hold their governments to account. Non-transparency is convenient for politicians — they don’t have to get in the crosshairs powerful economic interests and strive for a fundamental reduction in CO2 emissions.

Representatives of ministries from Finland, France, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria strongly opposed the position of the European Parliament. They repeated at the same time, the arguments of the biomass industry lobbyists. The representatives of Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain quietly echoed them or joined their objections directly.

Sweden, which initially opposed any revision of the existing rules, eventually used its presidency of the Council and the lack of a clear mandate for negotiations from other member states to assert its position in the complex trilogue negotiations. In the field of forest biomass sustainability, Sweden categorically rejected everything that the European Parliament proposed, even the exclusion of so-called dead wood from subsidies, although there are clear evidencethat its mining destroys the biological diversity of forests and degrades the soil.

The main parliamentary negotiator, German conservative Markus Pieper, made no secret by his resistance against changing the rules for the use of biomass, which undoubtedly did not help the German socialist Tiem Wölken, who was tasked with defending the parliamentary position on forest protection, much during the negotiations. Wölken you later he wailedthat “Member States were not interested in honestly dealing with the unsustainable use of forest biomass”.

Solving the climate crisis and thus strengthening the resilience of forests, has never been more urgent. However, the biomass industry by questioning scientific findings about the negative impacts of their business on the climate and biodiversity, it provides room for maneuver to politicians and governments, who can thus avoid necessary and urgent reforms.

The directly elected MEPs, whose debates and votes can be followed, ultimately had only a minimal influence on the resulting change in the rules for the use of biomass, which the chairperson of the energy commission described as a “balanced compromise”.

From the English original New EU biomass rules: a crushing defeat for forests published on the Fern website translated by OTAKAR BUREŠ.

Source: Deník referendum by

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