COP26: E.U. is committed to forest biomass burning to cut fossil fuel use

  • At COP26, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president, made clear that the E.U. is committed to ending its addiction to oil, gas and coal, but only if it can use the bridge of burning forest biomass to get to an eventual goal of fully utilizing truly renewable energy sources, like wind and solar.
  • Timmermans maintains that the E.U. is committed to only burning “the right kind of biomass: You can collect dead wood, you can collect those elements of the forests that are no longer alive, fallen down, etc. That constitutes a serious amount of biomass.… As long as your definition is sustainable… we can work with biomass.”
  • A forestry industry representative agrees: “The biomass we are currently using in Europe is about 95% based on local resources — that is residues from forestry and wood processing originating from Europe… We are currently harvesting significantly less than is regrowing annually in Europe.”
  • But critics say whole trees are being burned to make wood pellets and ask how the E.U. can commit to both biomass burning and protecting carbon-storing forests. “No amount of allegedly nicer forest management can overcome the basic problem of large, immediate emissions from burning tons of biomass daily,” said one activist.

GLASGOW, Scotland — In the view of Frans Timmermans, the European Union’s point man for U.N. climate summit negotiations at COP26, it is more achievable, and economical, for the 27 E.U. member nations to heavily subsidize the burning of wood pellets to make energy, than it is to invest in truly renewable energy solutions such as wind and solar now.

That’s the case even though the burning of woody biomass and the wood pellet supply chain releases carbon emissions greater than the burning of coal per kilowatt hour produced, according to current science.

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president (right), speaks during the COP26 press conference. E.U. minister Andrej Viziak of Slovenia is on left. Image by Justin Catanoso for Mongabay.

When asked by Mongabay after an E.U. press conference at COP26 this week why the billions of euros in European taxes to subsidize forest biomass are not going into zero-carbon renewables, he responded:

“Well, that’s the prime objective, to go to full renewables. But simply looking at how fast we need to do that, we just can’t reach the levels of renewables we would need to have [to stop burning fossil fuels and meet E.U. energy needs] to completely exclude biomass.”

So, in the meantime, forest biomass will be burned in Europe, and though it is counted as “carbon neutral” according to E.U. and U.N. rules, it will continue to add significant carbon to the atmosphere at a time when humanity and Earth most need emission cuts.

Forest advocates from The Netherlands protest the use of biomass for energy outside the E.U. Parliament in Brussels. Dutch NGOs released a study in July 2021 that states: “Research shows that wood production for biomass, which is used in the Netherlands for energy generation in coal-fired power stations, causes serious damage to forests and nature in Estonia.” Photo courtesy of Maarten Visschers.

A bundle of biomass contradictions

Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president, appeared both troubled and at ease with the ongoing biomass debate now raging in the E.U., especially in his home country of The Netherlands where biomass protesters have been active. When Mongabay asked two years ago at COP25 in Madrid his view on the growing use of biomass on the continent, his response was one of concern:

“The issue of biofuels needs to be looked at very carefully,” he said in 2019. “We have to make sure that what we do with biofuels is sustainable and does not do more harm than that it does good.” He promised then that regulations on biomass would be revisited and possibly revised in 2021 under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive. But no change was made.

The E.U.’s Frans Timmermans, met by journalists asking questions at the end of this week’s 30-minute COP26 press conference. Image by Justin Catanoso for Mongabay.

Since 2019, Timmermans has immersed himself in both the science and politics of generating energy from burning wood as a replacement for coal. He has listened to environmentalists as well as biomass industry leaders. He has decried the loss of biodiverse forests, if such forests are being cut for wood pellet production. He has said flatly that he doesn’t believe biomass is carbon neutral, as erroneously described in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which declared that emissions from burning trees are immediately zeroed out when new trees are planted. They’re not.

But in a sparsely covered press conference Tuesday — with lack of attendance due to a simultaneous appearance by former U.S. President Barack Obama — Timmermans showed how conflicted he has become, fielding a question from Mongabay that essentially asked: A lot of people are wondering, where is Frans Timmermans now on biomass?

“To be perfectly blunt with you, biomass will have to be a part of our energy portfolio if we are to remove our dependency on fossil fuels,” he said, then qualified that response. “It depends on the quality of your biomass. We have to be very clear in defining what is acceptable biomass and what’s not. That’s where the crux of the matter is.

“Some people say you can never find a definition good enough combined with a policy effective enough to police [biomass]. We don’t believe that. We believe there is a way of defining exactly what kind of biomass is in your energy mix and also make sure that you do not allow for whole forests to be cut down… which sadly is still happening. So, we have a lot of work to do here.”

It is difficult to reconcile Timmermans commitment to using only forest residue to feed the E.U.’s enormous current and future forest biomass demands. Here, at an Enviva wood pellet plant in Sampson county, North Carolina, U.S., thousands of whole trees are stacked in ring, destined to become pellets and shipped abroad. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

To burn or not to burn…

Timmermans’ Hamlet-like wrestling with the biomass vs. wind/solar sustainability dilemma is crucial to determining whether the E.U. can successfully hit its targets of a 55% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030 (compared with 1990 levels), putting it on track for climate neutrality by 2050.

At COP26, the U.N. leadership continues to assert that oil and gas are dying and coal is almost dead — something Timmermans agrees with. But, there’s a catch and a loophole: “carbon neutral” biomass offers the greenhouse gas accounting trick needed to achieve net-neutrality, while still actively burning something to make electricity.

And given the technical definition of wood as a renewable energy source — instituted at Kyoto and not altered by the 2015 Paris Agreement — a multibillion-dollar global biomass industry has sprung up, and is rapidly expanding, driven by billions in government subsidies from the E.U. and other countries, to meet the demand to quickly replace coal.

Alok Sharma, the United Kingdom COP26 president. Courtesy of COP26.

The E.U. already burns nearly 40 million metric tons of wood annually as it backs away from coal; the United Kingdom, the host of COP26, is the largest consumer of wood pellets. Japan and South Korea are moving steadily to shift from coal to wood for energy. And all of this wood burning is putting intensifying pressure on global forests — which are desperately important for the tremendous amounts of carbon they store.

Aside from meeting energy demands, a key incentive to burning wood are U.N.-tolerated national policies that do not require countries to count wood pellet carbon emissions at the smokestack, thus claiming carbon reductions that exist only on paper, while undermining the legitimacy of the ambitious carbon-reduction pledges they’re making here in Glasgow. Not to mention the addition of all that wood-derived carbon to the atmosphere and the impacts it will have on heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather.

This commitment to biomass burning comes as more than 100 nations signed the Glasgow Declaration on Forest and Land Use last week, pledging to end deforestation by 2030, while leaving the door open to logging on which the wood pellet industry depends.

The result is a complicated collision of goals, a conflict which evokes the questions: Do nations really want to reduce carbon emissions, and do they really want to reduce deforestation?

When Mongabay put questions of that nature this week to Alok Sharma, the United Kingdom COP26 president, he spoke vaguely about the U.N.’s commitment to transparency and accuracy in carbon accounting, but avoided mentioning biomass at all, on which the question hinged.

Timmermans later explained further what he meant by “the right kind of biomass: You can collect dead wood, you can collect those elements of the forests that are no longer alive, fallen down, etc. That constitutes a serious amount of biomass. There is also debris used in wood used in construction… As long as your definition is sustainable, then I think we can work with biomass. But I do admit it’s quite complicated to get this right.”

A forest in Kurgja, Estonia prior to clearcutting by an Estonian wood pellet maker. Image by Karl Adami.
A section of the Kurgjia forest after clearcutting, as documented by environmentalists commissioned by Greenpeace Netherlands. Image by Karl Adami.

Timmermans’ biomass worldview challenged

Environmentalists opposed to biomass burning remain frustrated with Timmermans and at what they see as his wishful, if not magical, thinking. But because his E.U. influence is so pervasive, policy favorable to biomass burning and the forestry industry remains unchanged in the E.U.’s Renewable Energy Directive.

“He does not address the real problem of the CO2 debt and the loss of biodiversity due to biomass combustion,” said Maarten Visschers, an anti-biomass activist in The Netherlands. “He doesn’t listen to the science and denies the problem. He is caught up in the interests of the energy companies and forestry sector.”

“The cheapest way to source biomass is to clearcut forests, which is happening today from North Carolina to Estonia to British Columbia,” said Peter Riggs, director at U.S. forest protection NGO Pivot Point and a Mongabay board member. “It’s more expensive to separate out merchantable timber from lower-grade biomass, and it’s more expensive still to gather up [tree] tops and limbs and ‘dead wood.’”

U.S. forest ecologist Bill Moomaw, an expert on forest carbon sequestration, has estimated that half of all wood for wood pellets comes from natural forests and tree plantations not residue, as Timmermans said the E.U. prefers. To Rigg’s point, Moomaw added: “Sawmill waste is already being burned at sawmills.”

Peg Put, coordinator of the forests, climate and biomass energy group of the Australian NGO Environmental Paper Network, leaned into the central goal of COP26 — rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

“Whenever a claim is wheeled out that the sustainability criteria can resolve the issues, alarm bells ring,” Put said. “This is a diversion. No amount of allegedly nicer forest management can overcome the basic problem of large, immediate emissions from burning tons of biomass daily… Timmermans knows the problems and should be leading a call for decisionmakers to find a way out of this disastrous position.”

Adam Colette, program director with the Dogwood Alliance, a U.S.-based forest advocacy NGO, added: “It is time to publicly acknowledge the biomass fallacy and create a rapid and complete phase-out plan immediately.”

Christian Rakos, president of the World Bioenergy Association (center). Image courtesy of the WBA.

An olive branch from the industry

Christian Rakos, president of the World Bioenergy Association in Stockholm, shares none of the frustration of those criticizing Timmermans. Rakos represents a multibillion-dollar industry expanding rapidly on both the global biomass supply and demand side, while receiving billions in public subsidies. And he cites data that Timmermans likely finds persuasive.

“The biomass we are currently using in Europe is about 95% based on local resources — that is residues from forestry and wood processing originating from Europe,” Rakos told Monabay. “We are currently harvesting significantly less than is regrowing annually in Europe — with considerable differences between countries, but nowhere above or even close to unstainable yield levels.

“From that point of view, I believe it’s impossible to claim that bioenergy use in Europe is unstainable,” he said.

Rakos agrees with Timmermans’ stance, saying that the E.U. can only wean itself off fossil fuels by burning more biomass, noting that, “I fully subscribe to the need to continuously ensure that sustainability in all its dimensions is secured when we use bioenergy. And for sure we will find room for improvement.

“But let’s be specific and see where the room is. So, I would like to call on NGOs to have a dialogue with us about this question. The bioenergy industry is also fighting against the climate catastrophe. We should be the allies of NGOs, not the enemies.”

Given that he has a foot in both camps, Timmermans might make a good moderator for that discussion.

Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. This is his seventh climate summit. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso

Banner image: Wood pellets burning. Image by Michael Frierson for Mongabay.

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