They are not easily surprised by a major lobbying offensive in Brussels – certainly not with new environmental regulations. Whether it concerns car manufacturers, airlines, NGOs or civil society: when a new bill is introduced, they increase the pressure in Brussels.
But that this one part of the forthcoming mega package of new climate laws is so fiercely contested, even seasoned officials are amazed: the role of biomass and the fate of Europe’s forests.
For those who have followed the climate discussion in the Netherlands in recent years, it is not such a big surprise, however. Energy generated by burning wood chips or other plant material is in principle ‘renewable’. But the debate about how sustainable biomass really is and whether the government should encourage the construction of biomass plants has been going on in the Netherlands for some time – and heated.
Also read: Can we achieve our climate goals without biomass from wood?
The same discussion has now also gripped Brussels. Next week the Commission will present proposals for amending legislation on renewable energy, and biomass is one of the most sensitive issues in the run-up to this. Lobbyists and activists bombard officials, diplomats and journalists with reports and letters. And large posters recently appeared around the European Parliament with photos of a destroyed forest next to the image of European Commissioner Frans Timmermans (Climate). The text: ‘The EU burns forests for fuel’.
It is a fact that biomass is an important part of the EU’s sustainable ambitions. The share of renewable energy in the EU has slowly grown to 20 percent in recent years, more than half of which comes from biomass. Now that the targets for sustainable energy are being significantly increased, it is inevitable that the EU will have to use more biomass.
Criticism of ‘woody’ biomass
At the same time, there has been a rapid increase in criticism of ‘woody’ biomass: burning trees to generate energy. the CO2emissions are significant and critics argue that the growth of new trees takes too long to compensate for this.
The rapid growth of this form of energy has also led to massive logging in parts of Europe. This also increases concerns about the consequences for biodiversity. “This policy combines the worst of both worlds,” says Martin Pigeon of the forest-based NGO Fern. “On the one hand, you use an energy source that contains the most CO2 produces, and with that you also destroy the forests that have to absorb carbon.”
In addition, wood is becoming an increasingly important raw material in an economy that wants to get rid of polluting materials such as plastic and steel.
This has made biomass a headache for Brussels. “We won’t make it without biomass,” Timmermans recently acknowledged in an interview with news site Euractiv. At the same time, he recognized the biomass-related ‘biodiversity challenge’ and the ‘ecocide’ that threatens forests. “I do not underestimate the challenge, but believe that biomass can play a useful role in the energy transition.”
The Commission does, however, want to tighten up the rules for its use. An early version of the proposals was recently leaked, in which the ‘sustainability criteria’ have been strengthened. Burning wood from primeval forests and other ‘no-go areas’, for example, is no longer sustainable. And smaller combustion plants also have to adhere to stricter rules. Member States are discouraged from using high-quality wood for energy production.
Climate NGOs and activists reacted incensed: the measures would not be nearly sufficient to prevent large-scale felling and burning of forests. A manifesto to ban biomass altogether already has nearly 250,000 signatures.
This is countered by a strong lobby from the forestry and pellet industry, which support EU countries such as Sweden, Finland and Estonia. They don’t want to touch the rules. A spokesperson for pellet producer Enviva emphasizes that adjustment should be done “with a scalpel, not a hammer.” “A credible and predictable policy is crucial to maintain investor confidence in renewable energy financing.”
It is also brewing in the European Commission, officials admit. Also because it involves a lot of money. Since biomass has been regarded as renewable energy in 2009, it is easier for EU governments to provide subsidies for it. In 2018, the sector was supported with more than 10 billion euros. “It’s a really hard fight, with interests diverging widely,” Pigeon says. “The industry is divided: some suppliers of wood for other processing are concerned about the distorting subsidies.”
The Netherlands wants the already stop subsidizing woody biomass. And it seems certain that Brussels will tighten up the subsidy rules. “We see that because of the subsidies, a consideration in Estonia, for example, turns out differently than it should have,” Diederik Samsom, top civil servant under Timmermans, recently admitted to members of parliament. As a result, according to him, it was too lucrative to sell trees to the Netherlands, for example. The new rules will therefore prescribe “that you can no longer subsidize wood that could have been used in a better way than by setting it on fire.”