The European Council’s bold vision to boost the proportion of renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and green hydrogen, from 22% in 2021 to 42.4% by 2030, overlooks a crucial issue: the continued incentives for incorporating freshly cut wood in the mix. Scientists and researchers have persistently urged for the exclusion of trees solely harvested to produce wood pellets for electricity generation under the Renewable Energy Directive, but these appeals have been disregarded.
Initially, the classification of wood as a renewable energy source aimed to encourage the use of waste materials from paper production and forestry industries, which would have otherwise emitted carbon during decomposition. However, given that wood burning releases more greenhouse gases than coal for every kilowatt-hour produced and that living trees are crucial carbon reservoirs, the scientific evidence is in opposition to the inclusion of wood burning as a sustainable energy source.
Michael Norton, director of the environment program at the European Academies Science Advisory Council, argues that while the EU’s drive to expand its renewable energy capacity is laudable, it must focus on reducing emissions and combating climate change. Including a renewable energy category that increases emissions is counterproductive.
International carbon accounting rules have intensified the use of primary wood, attributing emissions to the country where the tree is felled rather than where it is burned. This has created a monetary incentive to cut down trees specifically to produce pellets for electricity generation. Norton claims that limited local use of genuine residues without subsidies is a viable model. However, providing subsidies for bioenergy has led to large-scale industrial use, resulting in forest destruction and negative impacts on both climate and biodiversity.
At least 37% of biomass burned in the EU likely originates from primary wood sources like whole trees and branches, rather than residue, according to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. These rules allow European countries to import wood from non-EU nations and classify it as emission-free. In 2021, the EU imported wood pellets worth $924 million, primarily from Russia, the US, Belarus, and Ukraine. A 2014 study estimated that the emissions associated with processing raw wood into pellets and shipping them from the US to Europe were equivalent to 322 kg of CO2 per tonne of pellets.
Scientists have repeatedly raised concerns about this issue through public letters since 2018, calling for an end to biomass burning subsidies. Although the updated Renewable Energy Directive, approved by the EU Council in March, tightens the classification of wood residues and distinguishes them from primary wood sources, subsidies remain in place. Conservationists warn that the Directive will continue to harm forests, contribute to climate change, and destroy nature.
Martin Pigeon, forests & climate campaigner at lobby group Fern, believes that the Directive will perpetuate the burning of millions of trees at the expense of taxpayers. The Horizon Europe initiative of the European Commission allots €4 million for the development of biomass heat and/or CHP with carbon capture that produces almost no emissions. The EU has supported other initiatives, such as a mobile pelletizing unit and the BIORES project, which establishes biomass trading hubs in Serbia, Croatia, and Bulgaria.