Europe reconsiders its reliance on burning wood for electricity

In recent years, Europe’s power plants have slashed 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 fueled this transition by counting biomass (organic material such as wood, burned for fuel) as renewable energy and subsidizing its use. A transatlantic industry developed, cutting down American forests and processing the material into pellets, which are then shipped to Europe. But critics have long argued that the subsidies actually have little climate benefit and should be removed.

In Brussels on Tuesday night, a European Parliament committee voted to make substantial changes to both the way the union subsidizes biomass and the way it counts emissions from burning it, policies with major consequences if they are approved by the full Parliament. It is part of a wide-ranging package of climate policies that would alter not only the way Europe generates electricity for years to come, but also the way the European Union meets its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“This vote is a historic breakthrough,” said Martin Pigeon, a forest and climate advocate at Fern, a nonprofit group focused on European forests. “For the first time, a major EU regulatory body is making it clear that one of the EU’s most climate-damaging policies of the last decade, which incentivizes the burning of forests in the name of renewable energy, must stop.”

Wood, of course, is different from oil or coal because trees can regrow, extracting planet-warming carbon dioxide from the air. But it takes a century, on average, for carbon dioxide emissions from burned wood to be reabsorbed into a growing forest, during which time the released carbon dioxide contributes to global warming. Burning wood to generate electricity also releases more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels do to produce the same amount of energy. But under previous European Union rules, emissions from biomass were not counted in the bloc’s pledges to cut greenhouse gases.

Other changes proposed this week would eliminate most public financial support for biomass, including direct subsidies and indirect measures like rebates or tax credits. The rules also start counting emissions from biomass and restrict access to “certain types of ‘green’ financing.”

Bas Eickhout, a Dutch politician and member of the European Parliament who advocated the revisions, said they would take the important step of defining “primary woody biomass”, which is essentially wood taken directly from forests. (The definition agreed upon this week provides exceptions for wood from trees damaged by fire, pests and disease.) waste or sawdust, rather than raw wood, as well as shifting the focus to other forms of renewable energy entirely.

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 amendments put at risk Europe’s ability to achieve its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

“These frequent changes of the legislative framework undermine market stability and hamper the willingness to invest in renewable energy,” said Khashayar Farmanbar, the Swedish 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 the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels from Russia.”

Representatives from the wood pellet industry also raised objections. “Exclusion of primary biomass would delay efforts to achieve European energy security, raise energy prices for consumers and put EU climate goals out of reach,” the US Pellet Industry Association wrote. , an industry group, in a statement.

Biomass has experienced enormous growth in the last decade. Before the approval of the Renewable Energy Directive in 2009, which classified it as renewable, practically no European energy came from biomass. Since then, it has grown into a $10bn-a-year industry and now produces about 60 percent of what the European Union considers renewable energy.

These wood-burning plants could continue to operate under the revised policy, although they will no longer be eligible for subsidies. Last year was the first time that biomass in Europe was profitable without government support. This has raised concerns about continued wood burning, said Mary S. Booth, an environmentalist and director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a nonprofit group that promotes data-driven policy. “Wood burning emits carbon,” she said. “It’s basic physics.”

The effects of Tuesday’s changes could spread across the Atlantic to the southeastern United States, where much of Europe’s biomass is harvested. More than a million acres of US forest have been cleared for biomass, amplifying climate risks like flooding and mudslides.

However, this week’s vote is only the first step in a long process. After leaving the Environment Committee, the proposed changes still need to be adopted by the European Parliament this summer, leaving time for lobbying and further amendments. If the measure passes, national governments would still have to enact changes to the law.

In addition to forest products, the committee also approved changes to biofuel standards for food and feed crops. Mr Eickhout also advocated changes to limit the use of biofuels in transport, citing current spikes in food prices. This week, the committee called for the gradual elimination of products such as palm and soybeans for the coming year. These are crops that often lead to changes in land use, including deforestation.

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