Europe Rethinks 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 drove this transition by counting biomass — organic material like wood, burned as fuel — as renewable energy and subsidizing its use. A trans-Atlantic industry developed, logging American forests and processing the material into pellets, which are then shipped to Europe. But critics have long argued that the subsidies actually have few climate benefits and should be scrapped.

Late Tuesday in Brussels, a committee of the European Parliament voted to make substantial changes to both how the union subsidizes biomass, and how it counts emissions from burning it — policies with major consequences if passed by the full Parliament. It’s part of a broad package of climate policies that would alter not only the way Europe generates electricity in coming years, but also for how the European Union meets its targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

“This vote is a historic breakthrough,” said Martin Pigeon, a forests and climate campaigner with Fern, a nonprofit group focused on European forests. “For the first time, a major E.U. regulatory body makes clear that one of the E.U.’s most climate-wrecking policies of the last decade, incentivizing the burning of forests in the name of renewable energy, has to stop.”

Wood, of course, is unlike oil or coal because trees can be regrown, pulling planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the air. But it takes a century, on average, for the carbon dioxide emissions from burned wood to be reabsorbed in a growing forest, during which time the released carbon dioxide is contributing to global warming. Burning wood to generate electricity also releases more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels to produce the same amount of energy. But under the previous European Union rules, emissions from biomass weren’t counted toward the bloc’s pledges to reduce greenhouse gasses.

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

Bas Eickhout, a Dutch politician and member of the European Parliament who advocated for the revisions, said they would take the important step of defining “primary woody biomass,” which is essentially wood harvested directly from forests. (The definition agreed to this week offers exceptions for wood sourced from trees damaged by fires, pests, and disease.) “This would reduce the incentives for burning wood for energy,” Mr. Eickhout said, encouraging the use of industrial waste, like scraps or sawdust, rather than unprocessed wood, as well as shifting the focus to other forms of renewable energy altogether.

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 that the amendments risked Europe’s ability to achieve its pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

“These frequent changes of the legislative framework undermine the stability of the market and hamper the will to invest in renewable energy,” said Khashayar Farmanbar, the Swedish energy minister, who was one of the letter’s authors. He added that reducing biomass availability would make Europe’s energy transition “more difficult, including to rapidly phase out fossil fuels from Russia.”

Representatives of the wood-pellet industry also raised objections. “Excluding primary biomass would set back efforts to achieve European energy security, raise energy prices for consumers, and put the E.U.’s climate goals far out of reach,” the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, an industry group, wrote in a statement.

Biomass has seen tremendous growth over the past decade. Before the 2009 passage of the Renewable Energy Directive, which categorized it as renewable, essentially almost no European energy came from biomass. Since then, it has boomed into a $10-billion-a-year industry, and now produces around 60 percent of what the European Union considers renewable energy.

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

The effects of Tuesday’s changes could stretch across the Atlantic to the southeastern United States, where much of Europe’s biomass is harvested. More than one million acres of American forest have been cut for biomass, amplifying climate risks like flooding and landslides.

Yet this week’s vote is just the first step in a long process. After leaving the Environment Committee, the proposed changes will 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 need to enact the changes into law.

In addition to forest products, changes to food and feed-crop biofuel standards were also passed by the committee. Mr. Eickhout also argued for changes to limit the use of biofuels in transportation, citing the current food-price spikes. This week the committee called for a phase-out of products like palm and soy by as early as next year. These are crops that often lead to land use changes, including deforestation.

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