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Scientists warn the EU: Burning trees is NOT carbon neutral and subsidies must end

Photo: Ben Grim.

Over 500 scientists are calling on both the EU and the new US administration to end the subsidies for the burning of wood since it is not carbon neutral. Instead they are calling for investments in mechanisms to protect forests as crucial carbon sinks and to prevent biodiversty loss.

In a letter, the scientists write to the European Commission, the Presidents of the US and South Corea and to the Prime Minister of Japan:

“We urge you not to undermine both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning trees to generate energy. Forest preservation and restoration should be key tools for achieving this goal and simultaneously helping to address our global biodiversity crisis.”

The scientists emphasize that numerous studies have shown that burning of wood will increase warming for decades to centuries, even when the wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas. For each kilowatt hour of heat or electricity produced, using wood initially is likely to add two to three times as much carbon to the air as using fossil fuels.

The scientists write:

“To avoid these harms, governments must end subsidies and other incentives that today exist for the burning of wood whether from their forests or others. The European Union needs to stop treating the burning of biomass as carbon neutral in its renewable energy standards and in its emissions trading system.”

– and thereby end the huge subsidies that are driving the explosion in demand for wood pellets, which is driving forest degradation and biodiversity loss both in the EU, the US, Canada and East Asia. The letter, addressed to European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and US President Biden, calls on the leaders to – instead – invest in mechanisms to protect forests as crucial carbon sinks and defend the biodiversity they harbour.

Research by the consultancy Trinomics has shown that the EU member states plus the UK spend around €6.5 billion per year directly subsidising forest bioenergy. The huge subsidie are driving the explosion in demand for wood pellets, which is driving forest degradation and biodiversity loss both in the EU, the US, Canada and East Asia. The scientists warn the leaders in the letter:

“Your decisions going forward are of great consequences for the world’s forests because if the world supplied just an additional 2% of its energy from wood, it would need to double its commercial wood harvests.”

The letter is signed by over 500 scientists, of which over 40 scientists are based in Sweden. Read the full text of the letter here

EU’s bioenergy policy

• The EU is consulting publicly bioenergy’s role in its Renewable Energy Directive (2018/2001). The Directive is being revised this year to reflect higher climate and, potentially, renewable energy targets ahead of the UNFCCC COP26 meeting this November.

• Currently, the EU directive treats wood burning as carbon neutral, meaning that it counts towards Member States’ renewable energy targets. However, the scientists note, there is huge evidence that burning wood – even in cases where trees are re-planted – increases concentrations of carbon dioxide (and other harmful greenhouses gases and pollutants) for many decades – even centuries. Tree regrowth is simply too slow to offset the emissions generated when wood burns quickly enough to help keep global temperature rise to 1.5°C and stop runaway climate change.

• On top of the EU consultation, there are official reviews of bioenergy policy underway in the Netherlands (where a phase-out has been recommended) and Denmark. Outside the EU, the UK is the largest importer of wood pellets in the world and is also launching a consultation on “Biomass for Net Zero” this year.

• The intervention is urgent – as without reform to the EU directive and/or member state action – a higher renewables target could see the demand for wood pellets sky-rocket. Public pressure is also mounting for the EU to stop backing tree burning as a climate solution. To date, more than 25,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the EU “ends it support for fake renewables”.