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The classification of wood fuel as “ecological” in the EU accelerates the climate crisis. It could change a key vote next week
Why does the Czech Republic, as the presiding country of the EU, not act decisively in this matter?
The future of many of the world’s forests will be decided next week when MEPs vote on a revised EU directive on renewable energy sources. If the Parliament does not change the EU’s discredited and harmful renewable energy policy, European citizens’ taxes will continue to pay for the burning of forests around the world.
Directly elected European representatives now have to choose: either they can save the EU’s “climate goals” with their legislative loopholes, or they can start saving our climate, because right now they are doing nothing for this purpose.
Increasing amounts of wood chips and other wood fuel are being imported from outside the EU to meet Europe’s growing appetite for burning forests for energy. This appetite is supported by the existing EU directives on renewable energy sources. It does so by classifying forest biomass as zero-carbon on paper, when in reality burning forest biomass will produce higher emissions than fossil fuels in the coming crucial decades.
The interconnected crises of war and rising food and energy prices highlight the urgent need for strategies that enable energy savings and energy efficiency, and the importance of decarbonising the EU energy sector. It should be clear that decarbonisation can only be achieved using carbon-free energy sources. Phasing out fossil fuels is essential, but equally important are the energy sources we replace them with.
The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive should only apply to genuine renewable forms of energy – and forests are not renewable. Forests are ecosystems created by nature that cannot be replanted. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need to restore and preserve more forest ecosystems – but as internationally recognized scientists warn, the EU’s renewable energy directive encourages the daily destruction of irreplaceable forest ecosystems in favor of damaging new tree planting.
The author of the article is Greta Thunberg and environmental experts.
There is simply not enough time for these tree plantings to regrow and comply with the Paris Agreement. It takes minutes to burn forest biomass, while climatically and ecologically damaging tree plantations take decades to centuries to reabsorb the released carbon. That equates to decades of carbon debt that we don’t have time for.
The same goes for burning what the industry calls forest debris, such as tree tops and branches. Burning any part of a tree means burning carbon. If the forestry residue comes from an 80-year-old tree, it will take 80 years to regrow an equivalent tree – and that’s time we don’t have.
For forest residues to become sustainable end products, forestry must first be sustainable; however, that is not the case today. Most people would assume a few things about our forests based on what they’ve been told: firstly, that Europe has quite a few protected forests – even if not yet as many as the EU has promised, that the level of protection is at least moving in the right direction. Other widespread misconceptions are that forestry is managed sustainably, that mostly climate-friendly products are produced, and that only forest residues are burned for energy purposes.
In fact, none of this applies in the EU today. Strictly protected forests are cut down daily, half of what is harvested in EU forests, not just the residues, is burned as fuel. Certified and supposedly “sustainable” forestry causes increased emissions, daily loss of biodiversity and systematic violation of the rights of indigenous peoples in the Arctic regions of Europe.
The politically driven conversion of forests into ecologically harmful tree plantations threatens the way of life of indigenous Sami communities. Their reindeer have survived in the harsh arctic climate since time immemorial, but after just 60 years of so-called sustainable forestry, 71% of the lichen-rich forests that are crucial for reindeer survival have already disappeared in Sweden. Sami communities sound the alarm: they tell us “reindeer are dying of hunger”.
Forests degraded by logging are also more flammable, and this poses a huge risk amid an accelerating climate crisis. This was made clear by the wildfires that broke out in Europe during the recent extreme heatwaves and led to large-scale carbon releases, further exacerbating climate disruption.
We must drastically reduce all types of greenhouse gas emissions, not just those from fossil fuels. In addition to, not instead of, we must remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Instead of relying on non-existent, unreliable and expensive carbon capture technologies, the best way to do this is to protect and restore more forests. If we keep cutting down forests, there will always be more carbon in the atmosphere than if the forests remained uncut. Due to incentivized logging, EU carbon sinks are already starting to collapse in countries such as Finland and Estonia.
We clearly need to move to ecosystem-based forestry and abandon today’s model of forestry, which means pruning, felling and planting industrial stands.
Such a shift would equate to more sustainable rural jobs and lead to greater climate resilience of forests, both of which are essential for a just transition. In this context, all subsidies provided for the burning of forest biomass need to be shifted to real renewable energy sources such as offshore wind, solar and geothermal energy.
However, as it stands, the Renewable Energy Directive creates a negative downward spiral. However, we can turn it around. Members of the European Parliament have a rare opportunity and duty. They have until 1pm on Wednesday to table an amendment that would exempt forest biomass from the Renewable Energy Directive. They can vote on this change on September 13. They have 48 hours to do the right thing. If they fail, they will block decades of increased carbon emissions, biodiversity loss and human rights abuses.