A new investigation has found that Europe’s bioenergy plants are burning whole trees from protected forests to meet the EU’s ambitious bioenergy targets. Under current legislation, bioenergy producers do not have to show that their wood is sustainably sourced.
Bioenergy makes up 65% of the EU’s renewable energy mix, and its use is expected to double by the end of the decade in an effort to meet Europe’s renewable energy targets.
Widely regarded as a renewable resource, bioenergy fuel is meant to be harvested from biomass residues and wastes that do not have other existing uses, such as the parts of crops left behind on the field after harvesting or by-products from forest industries like bark or sawdust.
Demand exceeds supply
But as a new investigation from the conversation group Birdlife reveals, the actual practices in many European countries are far murkier as demand for bioenergy fuel far exceeds what can be supplied from sustainable sources. Birdlife’s findings are published in the paper The Black Book of Bioenergy, which it co-authored with Transport and Environment.
In Slovakia, for instance, bioenergy is the biggest source of renewable energy, driven by the country’s 14% renewable energy target for 2020 and supported by policy incentives such as a guaranteed price for electricity for energy producers and support from EU funds for forestry. Not surprisingly, there has been a 70% increase in wood burning – corresponding to 1.3 million tonnes – for bioenergy since 2005.
But to meet this demand, the paper’s authors discovered that bioenergy plants have turned to felling whole trees, even from protected areas such as Poloniny National Park in the eastern part of the country.
Deforestation and flooding
A similar pattern is found in Finland, which the authors say is stripping the country of its “iconic forest landscape down to the very last stump”. Likewise in northern Italy, the demand for bioenergy has led to the harvesting of rich, riverside forests, many of which are publicly owned. The authors charge that the bioenergy companies falsely present their activities as flood mitigation measures to pillage the riverside, contributing to the recent flooding.
In Germany, the investigation found that half of the resources used for biogas production are food crops like maize. In regions such as Lower Saxony, maize now takes up 65 – 75% of arable land, and even rich habitats such as peatlands, marshlands and grasslands are being ploughed to plant maize for biogas.
Foreign countries feed Europe’s energy habits
A similar pattern of destruction is found beyond Europe’s borders. Colombia, the world’s fourth largest producer of palm oil, tripled its exports to Europe between 2013 and 2015, with the Netherlands, Germany and Spain being its main destinations. Not only does palm oil biodiesel produce three times more carbon emissions than fossil diesel, the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations in the South American country has come at a great expense for both people and nature.
Closer to home, a factory in North-West Russia produces a million tonnes of wood pellets, all of which are sold to European markets, including prominent energy companies such as RWE, Vattenfall and Dong Energy. According to the authors, the main source of the raw material for the pellets is whole trees from the forests of nearby Leningrad and Pakov Oblasts.
Subsidising environmental destruction
Sini Eräjää, Birdlife’s bioenergy officer, told the Guardian: “This report provides clear evidence that the EU’s renewable energy policies have led to increased harvesting of whole trees and to continued use of food crops for energy. We are subsidising large-scale environmental destruction, not just outside Europe, as in Indonesia or the US, but also right in our own backyard.”
Under current legislation, bioenergy plants do not have to provide evidence that their wood products come from sustainable sources, reports the Guardian.
In all of the cases presented in the paper, this unrestrained and unregulated growth of bioenergy is causing far more harm than good. In addition to deforestation and habitat loss, the use of whole trees for energy releases the carbon stored in the wood and greatly weakens the capacity of forests to act as a carbon sink.
“To fight climate change, we need to maximise natural carbon stores rather than deplete them,” argue the authors.