Conservationists warn the world’s forests may be under threat if EU continues to regard biomass as carbon-neutral while ramping up its renewable energy targets. Angeli Mehta reports

The European Commission last July set out a plan to step up action to protect and restore the world’s forests, with a priority being to address deforestation in corporate supply chains.

But conservationists warn that the EU could be endangering the world’s forests if it continues to allow the burning of wood biomass as a substitute for fossil fuels as its ramps up its renewable energy targets.

According to the UN, CO2 is taken up by forest regrowth, so the process can be considered carbon-neutral. But scientists say that doesn't take account of how long it takes forests to regrow enough to absorb the CO2 emitted by burning, especially as an unharvested forest would have carried on sequestering carbon.

If a country burns coal it counts in its emissions tally,  but if it burns imported wood biomass it doesn’t

There is also  a “biomass loophole” in international greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting rules set out in the 2009 Kyoto Protocol – and designed to avoid double counting – that mean when a country imports biomass to be burnt it can be reported as zero emissions because the carbon was assumed to be released at harvest and recorded in the exporting country’s land use/forestry accounting.

Ironically,  if a country burns coal it counts in its emissions tally,  but if it burns imported wood biomass it doesn’t, even though wood is less energy-dense than coal and so emits more CO2 per unit of energy produced.

“The concept of the carbon-neutrality of forest biomass may have had some validity in 2009, when the urgency of tackling global warming was less widely recognised,” says Michael Norton, environment programme director at the European Academies Science Advisory Council (Easac). “But the focus today is on limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2C. This requires urgent actions, not waiting for new trees to grow while pumping additional carbon into the atmosphere by burning trees for energy.”

The 2009 Kyoto Protocol doesn’t discriminate between old-growth and young forests. (Credit: Aleksander Bolbot/Shutterstock)

Biomass accounted for 7.5% of final energy consumption in Europe in 2016, and 44% of renewable energy consumption. This is set to rise as the revised directive (RED II) has an overall target of 32% of the energy mix coming from renewable energy sources by 2030, up from 20% in its first incarnation.

In January 2018, 796 scientists wrote to the European Parliament urging it to amend RED to restrict eligible forest biomass to appropriately defined residues and wastes, “because the fates of much of the world’s forests and the climate are literally at stake.”

One of its signatories was John Beddington, a former chief scientific adviser to the UK government.

The message of this directive is 'cut your forests so long as someone burns them for energy'

The EU already imports biomass because its annual harvest of wood is not enough to meet existing demand. The expanded targets would lead to increased degradation of forests around the world, the scientists warned.

Moreover, Europe would be creating a dangerous precedent. “Europe has been properly encouraging countries such as Indonesia and Brazil to protect their forests, but the message of this directive is 'cut your forests so long as someone burns them for energy'."

To supply just another 3% of global energy with wood they said, would double the commercial cuttings of the world’s forests.

The Drax power station in Yorkshire has upgraded four of its coal units to burn wood biomass. (Credit: Coatesy/Shutterstock)  
But this intervention, along with a series of scientific reports from Easac and others, cuts no ice: biomass is still considered in the same way as solar and wind energy by the EU.

Mary Booth, director of the US-based Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), describes the policy as a “massive fraud being perpetrated on people and the planet”. She coordinated a lawsuit filed at the European Court of Justice last spring to challenge it.

The UK and Denmark have been particularly enthusiastic about using wood pellets to replace coal in power plants.

Drax argues the demand for biomass helps encourage owners to maintain their forests as forest

The Drax power station in north Yorkshire has upgraded four of its units to burn wood biomass, rather than coal, which it describes as Europe’s largest decarbonisation project.

It has an ambitious strategy to use carbon capture and storage technology, which it says would make its electricity production carbon-negative by 2030, and last month announced a new partnership with cleantech company Econic Technologies to explore the potential for using captured CO2 in the production of plastic products.

In 2018 it used around 6.6 million tonnes of wood pellets to produce 12% of the UK’s electricity. Most of the fuel comes from North America: from its own plants, and from those of US firm Enviva.

Drax says its biomass pellets are made from low-grade wood that wouldn't find a market. (Credit: Juan Enrique del Barrio/Shutterstock)

Drax says the pellets are made from a mix of low-grade wood that would otherwise not find a market – tops, thinnings, sawmill and other residues – and that these represent just a fraction of the low-grade fibre and residues available. It assumes the residues would have been burnt or left to decompose on the forest floor, also releasing carbon, and argues the new market created by demand for biomass helps encourage forest owners to maintain their forests as forest.

Drax has set up an independent advisory board, chaired by Beddington, which has just concluded that its fuel sourcing meets standards set by the UK’s Forestry Commission. A spokesperson for Drax said: “These criteria are specifically designed to ensure good carbon outcomes, therefore negating the risk of carbon debt or payback periods that are out of step with the timescales we have to tackle climate change.”

The advisory board also recommended a review of existing evidence on sustainable biomass to “advance understanding among academics, policymakers and environmental groups”, and to identify where further work is needed.

Substituting fossil fuels with biomass is expensive, and relies on subsidies

Beddington said: “It’s a complex area to navigate and if some common ground based on the scientific evidence can be agreed, it creates a framework to help ensure the right types of biomass are used which make the greatest contribution towards addressing the climate emergency.”

But substituting fossil fuels with biomass relies on subsidies. In 2018 Drax received £789m from taxpayers.

“You could take account of the public good of forests, and just subsidise that,” says Duncan Brack, associate fellow at Chatham House and co-author of a series of reports on the growth of wood for power and heat and its implications for the planet.

Young trees do not sequester as much carbon as mature forests. (Credit: Zoran Milosavljevic/Shutterstock)

“The industry only exists because of subsidies, which is ironic when we’re subsidising other countries to keep their trees.”

And while the pellet industry says responsible, active management of forests boosts carbon stock, research shows that intact forests store more carbon dioxide in both trees and soil, and older forests sequester more carbon than young ones, carbon accumulation increasing continuously with tree size. It’s been suggested that forests of between 70 to 125 years are going to sequester the most carbon in the near-term.

“You have to show that by managing it – you are actually promoting growth – and immediately replanting,” suggests Brack. “Cutting trees means you lose soil carbon, and with monoculture plantations there’s more loss of carbon because you get constant churn.”

Morgan Gillespy is director of forests at CDP, which awarded Drax a B in its recent scorecard on deforestation risk. She said most forests in North America are "fairly sustainably managed", but added: "We are seeing that the climate conversations are still siloed from the forests conversation."

We have to make sure that what we do with biofuels does not do more harm than that it does good

Despite lobbying by conservation groups to revise the definition of forests in the rulebook for implementing the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, it was not part of the negotiations at COP25 in Madrid.

Nevertheless, at a press conference at COP25, EU executive vice-president Frans Timmermans suggested the EU view of biomass as carbon-neutral would have to be reviewed.

“The issue of biofuels needs to be looked at very carefully,” Timmermans said. “We have to make sure that what we do with biofuels is sustainable and does not do more harm than that it does good.” It’s not clear, however, how soon that review might come.

Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability.  @AngeliMehta.

Main picture credit: Rokas Tenys/Shutterstock


This article is part of our in-depth briefing on deforestation risk in timber product supply chains, see also:

Move to set science-based targets for forestry sector as threat to northern forests grows

P&G slated for reluctance to switch from virgin pulp fibre


FSC  CDP  Green New Deal  Drax  RED II  Partnership for Policy Integrity  Forestry Commission  Easac 

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