Europe rethinks its reliance on burning wood for electricity

In recent years, European power plants have reduced their use of coal by burning something else instead: millions of tons of wood, much of it imported from the United States.

A controversial European Union policy called the Renewable Energy Directive has spurred this transition by counting biomass – organic matter such as wood, burned as fuel – as renewable energy and subsidizing its use. A transatlantic industry developed that cut down American forests and processed the material into pellets, which are then shipped to Europe. But critics have long argued that the subsidies actually have few climate benefits and should be scrapped.

Late on Tuesday in Brussels, a European Parliament committee voted to make substantial changes to both the way the union subsidizes biomass and the way it counts emissions from its combustion – policy with major implications if passed by the full parliament. accepted. It is part of a broad package of climate policies that would change not only the way Europe generates electricity in the coming years, but also the way the European Union achieves its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“This vote is a historic breakthrough,” said Martin Pigeon, a forest and climate activist at Fern, a nonprofit organization that focuses on European forests. “For the first time, a major EU regulator is making it clear that one of the EU’s most climate-destroying policies of the past decade, encouraging the burning of forests in the name of renewable energy, must stop.”

Wood, of course, is different from oil or coal, as trees can be regrowth, taking the planet-warming carbon dioxide from the air. But it takes an average of a century for the carbon dioxide emissions from burned wood to be reabsorbed in a growing forest, during which time the carbon dioxide released 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 the European Union’s previous rules, emissions from biomass were not counted toward the bloc’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.

Other changes proposed this week would remove most of the government’s financial support for biomass, including both direct subsidies and indirect measures such as rebates or tax credits. The rules are also starting to count emissions from biomass and limit access to “certain types of “green” financing.

Bas Eickhout, a Dutch politician and MEP who advocated for the revisions, said they would take the important step to define “primary woody biomass”, which is essentially wood harvested directly from forests. (The definition agreed this week provides exceptions for wood that comes from trees damaged by fires, pests and diseases.) “This would reduce incentives to burn wood for energy,” Mr Eickhout said, while he encouraged the use of industrial waste, such as scrap or sawdust, instead of raw wood, and shifted the focus entirely to 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 changes jeopardized Europe’s ability to deliver on its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030. compared to the 1990 level.

“These frequent changes to the legislative framework undermine the stability of the market and hinder the will to invest in renewable energy,” said Khashayar Farmanbar, Sweden’s energy minister, who was one of the authors of the letter. He added that reducing the availability of biomass would make Europe’s energy transition “more difficult, including rapidly phasing out fossil fuels from Russia.”

Representatives of the wood pellet industry also objected. “Excluding primary biomass would curb efforts to achieve European energy security, raise energy prices for consumers and push the EU’s climate goals far beyond reach,” the US Industrial Pellet Association industry group wrote 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, essentially no European energy came from biomass. Since then, it has grown into a $10 billion-a-year industry and now produces about 60 percent of what the European Union considers renewable energy.

These wood-burning plants should continue to operate under the revised policy, but are no longer eligible for subsidies. Last year, biomass was profitable in Europe for the first time without government support. This has raised concerns about the ongoing burning of wood, said Mary S. Booth, an ecologist and director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a nonprofit that promotes data-driven policies. “Burning wood emits carbon,” she said. “It’s basic physics.”

The effects of Tuesday’s changes could extend across the Atlantic to the southeastern United States, where much of Europe’s biomass is harvested. More than a million acres of U.S. forests have been cleared for biomass, increasing climate risks such as flooding and landslides.

Still, this week’s vote is just the first step in a long process. After leaving the Environment Committee, the proposed changes still need to be approved by the European Parliament this summer, leaving time for lobbying and further amendments. If the measure is adopted, national governments will still have to legislate the changes.

In addition to forest products, amendments to the biofuel standards for food and feed crops were also adopted by the committee. Mr Eickhout also called for changes to limit the use of biofuels in transportation, citing current spikes in food prices. This week, the committee called for phasing out products such as palm and soy as early as next year. These are crops that often lead to land use changes, including deforestation.

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