A coalition of environmental groups from across several countries have taken to the courts to challenge EU officials over their continued subsidy of biomass wood burning.
The plaintiffs in the case come from Estonia, Ireland, France, Romania, Slovakia and the U.S., and all claim they are negatively impacted by the EU’s persistent treatment of burning wood biomass as though it is carbon neutral and therefore counts towards renewable targets.
Specifically, the coalition takes aim at the EU’s new Renewable Energy Directive, also known as RED II. The 2018 directive raised the EU’s renewable energy consumption target to 32 percent by 2030. This is a laudable goal, or at least it would be, say the plaintiffs, if 60 percent of its renewables targets didn’t come from forest biomass.
In the case, which was filed in the European Court in Luxembourg on Monday, March 4, the plaintiffs argue that this continued push for biomass actually runs counter to the EU’s own directives that stipulate renewable energy sources must not harm the environment.
“The lawsuit we are filing today alleges the EU’s policy fails to comply with nearly every one of the principles for environmental policy that are laid out in the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU, including that policy should be based on science, address climate change, and embrace the principle that polluters pay,” Raul Cazan, of 2Celsius in Romania, one of the NGO plaintiffs, said in a press release. “It’s hard to imagine a more counter-productive policy than burning forests for fuel.”
In the suit, the group spells out why it believes that forest biomass runs counter to the EU’s stated mission. “RED II will accelerate widespread forest devastation and significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions by not counting CO2 emissions from burning wood fuels,” it says. “Wood-fired power plants emit more CO2 per unit of energy generated than coal plants, but RED II counts these emissions as zero. The treatment of forest biomass as low or zero–carbon renewable energy in both RED I and RED II has and will continue to increase harvesting pressure on forests in Europe and North America to meet the growing demand for woody biomass fuel in the EU.”
When EU officials debated RED II over the past few years a body of some 800 scientists voiced their concerns on various issues with the directive, among them that it conflates sustainability with low carbon output, which are not necessarily the same thing. They also pointed out that it repeatedly cites goals to preserve biodiversity while at the same time failing to acknowledge that its safeguards in this area often only apply to what are known as “primary” or untouched forests, leaving great areas of forest unprotected.
The argument for biomass hinges on the faulty premise that so long as we eventually take carbon out of the atmosphere by, say, planting new trees, the process becomes low carbon. This is not necessarily true when we acknowledge that increasingly virgin wood is being used and not wood waste products and also that time is a factor. We are staring down the barrel of widespread climate change and global temperature increase that is already having devastating effects on biodiversity and our ability to withstand worsening weather. Betting on carbon sequestration one day offering us relief from insulating gasses in our atmosphere may not provide a benefit soon enough to keep us out of the climate change firing line.
It is important to acknowledge that not all scientists are against RED II, though they do appear to be in a comparatively much smaller minority.
Some scientists have said they see biomass as a critical tool in keeping global temperatures below a 1.5C rise over industrial temperatures. They argue that we can square our forest biomass use when we consider that bioenergy can also reduce wood waste. So long as we stay far ahead of the curve on planting new trees, we can keep up our offset, they argue. Wood burning also provides a ready energy source in a way that renewable fuels, like solar and wind power, are not always capable of providing. They also argue that without biomass to prop up renewable energies, the entire system would break down. Essentially, they’re saying that if we want to move to a low carbon, sustainable energy framework, biomass has to be part of that.
These have been among the EU’s key defenses of its biomass policies, and we have seen such reasoning also used in the United States to class forestry biomass as a renewable source of energy—something that is proving as highly contentious in the US as it is in the EU.
The European Commission has reportedly chosen not to comment on the case, instead saying that it will wait for the courts to decide whether this case has legs.
This case is one that climate campaigners both in Europe and the US will be watching closely, as the decision may well shape the future of wood burning and sustainability policy.