How the race for renewables is burning Europe’s forests
Europeans are paying €billions for increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere
Sustainability goes to the heart of the European renewable energy debate. The drive to replace coal, one of the world’s biggest sources of carbon emissions, with cleaner sources of power, is a top priority in the fight against climate change globally.
A switch to burning wood in the form of pellets appears to offer a simple and in theory carbon-neutral alternative to coal-fired power stations because trees take up carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. As long as the burned trees are replaced with new plantings, there is no net addition to the stock of carbon in the atmosphere.
However, that process of carbon take-up can take many decades. And in the furnace, burning wood releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than burning gas, oil, or even coal. By accelerating carbon dioxide emissions in the short term, burning wood for electricity could be fatal for states’ ability to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global heating to well below 2C by 2050.
Demand for woody biomass or energy from wood as an alternative to coal in power stations took off from 2009, when the first EU renewable energy directive obliged member states to source 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020 and classified biomass energy as carbon-neutral.
A flaw in the legislation meant that woody biomass was fully categorised as renewable, even if it came not just from wood residues or waste, but from whole trees. This meant that companies could directly harvest forests for pellets – rather than making pellets from the by-products of timber cut for other uses – in the name of sustainable forest management.
As the EU moved in 2018 to double the use of renewable energy by 2030, scientists warned the European Parliament that this loophole in the sustainability criteria of the revised EU legislation would accelerate the climate crisis and devastate mature forests. But against the competing interests of the multibillion euro biomass lobby, it went unamended.
Almost all European countries have recorded an increase in logging for energy. Nearly a quarter of the trees harvested in the EU in 2019 were for energy, up from 17% in 2000.
Biomass, of which wood from forests is the main source, now makes up almost 60% of the EU’s renewable energy supply, more than solar and wind combined, and a vast cross-borderindustry has emerged to meet this demand.