Essay by Eric Worrall
In the 16th Century, coal saved the forests of Britain and Europe from total extinction. My question, who or what will save the forests this time?
EU votes to keep woody biomass as renewable energy, ignores climate risk
by Justin Catanoso on 16 September 2022
- Despite growing public opposition, the European Parliament voted this week not to declassify woody biomass as renewable energy. The forest biomass industry quickly declared victory, while supporters of native forests announced their plan to continue the fight — even in court.
- The EU likely renewed its commitment to burning wood as a source of energy largely to help meet its target of cutting EU carbon emissions by 55% by 2030, something it likely couldn’t achieve without woody biomass (which a carbon accounting loophole counts as carbon neutral, equivalent to wind and solar power).
- Scientific evidence shows that burning wood pellets is a major source of carbon at the smokestack. The European Union also likely continued its embrace of biomass this week as it looks down the barrel of Russian threats to cut off natural gas supplies this winter over the EU’s opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- While the EU decision maintains that whole trees won’t be subsidized for burning, that natural forests will be protected, and that there will be limits to logging old growth and primary forests, these provisions include legal loopholes and were not backed with monitoring or enforcement commitments. No dates were set for biomass burning phase down.
For three years, European forest advocates have courted public opinion and lobbied the EU parliament to stop spending billions annually to subsidize the burning of wood for energy — a process ultimately dirtier than coal — and to reject the EU’s official designation of woody biomass as a renewable, zero-emissions energy source on par with wind and solar.
The relentless campaign grew steadily in strength, with recent opinion polls showing most Europeans in favor of protecting their shrinking natural forests over seeing them harvested to make wood pellets to burn in converted coal power plants. A growing portion of parliament too began speaking out against woody biomass burning.
So it was this week that the European Parliament voted in Brussels for amendments to its Renewable Energy Directive (RED) that are the first-ever ostensibly aimed at protecting natural forests and limiting biomass subsidies. But it was the bioenergy industry claiming victory on Wednesday, not forest advocates.
With the EU legally mandated to phase out coal by 2030, the parliament voted down an amendment to declassify woody biomass as a renewable energy source, which the bioenergy industry immediately applauded. With that continued designation, carbon emissions from biomass go legally uncounted by EU countries at the smokestack — as if they don’t exist.
The population of Britain in the 16 century (3-4 million people) and Europe (70-78 million) were a tiny fraction of today’s population, yet people back in the 16th century still managed to devastate all but the most remote and inaccessible forests, in their search for fuel and building materials.
How long will today’s European forests survive, now that British and European politicians want to reject coal, and are subsidising the chopping down of trees?
Only the discovery and exploitation of coal saved the forests of the 16th century from total extinction. Trees simply don’t grow fast enough to replace timber lost to large scale energy exploitation, even for 16th century needs, let alone today’s needs.