Push to Burn Wood for Fuel Threatens Climate Goals, Scientists Warn

Scientists say a new EU renewable energy policy on biomass is 'misleading' and will raise emissions. U.S. forests are being turned into wood pellets to feed demand.

An Austrian ranger explains to a group of landowners how maintaining old-growth forest in the Dürrenstein Wilderness area helps Austria meet its climate targets by sequestering carbon. By Bob Berwyn
A ranger explains to a group of landowners how maintaining old-growth forest in the Dürrenstein Wilderness area helps Austria meet its climate targets by sequestering carbon. By Bob Berwyn

Share this article

The European Union declared this week that it could make deeper greenhouse gas cuts than it has already pledged under the Paris climate agreement. But its scientific advisors warn that the EU’s new renewable energy policy could undermine that goal because it fails to fully account for the climate impacts of burning wood for fuel.

By counting forest biomass, such as wood pellets used in power plants, as carbon-neutral, the new rules could make it impossible for Europe to achieve its climate goals, the European Academy of Sciences Advisory Council (EASAC) wrote in a strongly worded statement

The council said the renewable energy policy‘s treatment of biomass is “simplistic and misleading” and could actually add to Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 to 30 years.


We deliver climate news to your inbox like nobody else. Every day or once a week, our original stories and digest of the web's top headlines deliver the full story, for free.

That bump in emissions would come just as the planet’s carbon emissions budget is running out, said William Gillett, EASAC’s energy director. The Paris agreement aims to reduce net emissions from energy systems to zero within the next several decades.

“The Paris agreement put the time dimension into stark focus,” Gillett said. “We don’t have 200 years to get to carbon balance. We only have 10 to 20 years. Our carbon budget is nearly used up, and burning trees uses up the budget even faster,” he said.

The Math Doesn’t Add Up

The countries in the Paris treaty have been encouraged to adopt new, more ambitious goals in the next few years to further reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming.

So, European nations, among the treaty’s strongest backers, have engaged in prolonged negotiations toward deeper emissions cuts. Over the past two weeks, they agreed to increase renewable energy to 32 percent of the power mix and set a goal of 32 percent energy efficiency savings.

The EU’s climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, told a meeting of environment leaders from Europe, Canada and China on Wednesday that the new policies would mean the European Union could increase its emissions reduction target from 40 percent to just over 45 percent by 2030.

But the renewable energy policy includes burning wood for fuel. Over a year ago, the EU’s science advisors published a comprehensive report debunking the logic behind treating all wood fuel as beneficial to the climate. Because burning wood gives off more CO2 than coal per unit of electricity produced, the climate math doesn’t add up, scientists say.

Large-scale forest harvests have a climate warming effect for at least 20 to 35 years, said University of Helsinki climate and forest scientist Jaana Bäck, who noted that scores of evidence-based studies all say basically the same thing.

“And if we look at the Paris targets, we are in critical times at the moment. We need to reduce emissions now, not in 50 or 100 years,” she said.

Of particular concern is the harvesting of mature trees. Converting waste wood or fast-growing agricultural products has less climate impact. 

A logging truck in Georgia. Credit: Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest/CC-BY-2.0
Large-scale forest harvests have a climate warming effect for at least 20 to 35 years, said climate and forest scientist Jaana Bäck. Credit: Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests/CC-BY-2.0

The adoption of the rules is partly a disconnect between science and policy, and also part of political compromise in the EU confederation, which strives for consensus. Some countries, including forest-rich Scandinavia, pushed for the rules in their current form, Gillett said.

EASAC noted that while it may be too late to change the EU directive itself, each country can now decide how to implement it. The national science academies will be advising policy makers in their respective countries on how to implement the rules without adding to emissions, Gillett said.

What About Sustainable Forests?

In creating the energy policy, the EU attempted to address the climate impacts of wood-burning by setting standards, such as requiring biomass supply chains in the heat and power sector to emit 80 to 85 percent less greenhouse gas than fossil fuels. And the forest biomass is supposed to come from certified sustainable forests.

But that doesn’t cover the emissions from burning the biomass or the loss of stored carbon when trees are harvested, “in other words, all the main things,” said Alex Mason, who tracks EU energy policy for the World Wide Fund for Nature Europe, formerly the World Wildlife Fund.

Other proposed climate safeguards, such as limiting subsidies to wood-burning facilities that produce both electricity and heat, were watered down during the negotiations. In the final version, the low standards for subsidies will encourage more inefficient biofuel projects with high emissions, Mason said.

“That has potentially disastrous consequences for the climate and for global forests. That’s precisely why nearly 800 scientists wrote to the members of the European Parliament in Januarybut they were ignored,” he said. He said watchdog groups like his would continue to press the EU and its member countries to change course.

U.S. Southeast Is a Major Biomass Source

Biomass rules in Europe have a direct impact on the United States, as well.

European subsidies have been driving deforestation in the Southeastern U.S. since 2009, when the EU adopted its first renewable energy standards, said David Carr, with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Logging in areas like northeastern North Carolina and adjacent parts of Virginia has spread so fast that environmental groups haven’t been able to compile an accurate regional picture. But they do know that some of the logging is happening in ecologically valuable wetlands forests.

In one part of North Carolina, the wood fuel industry has been logging about 50,000 acres per year (about the size of Washington, D.C.) to meet demand at four wood pellet factories for export to Europe. 

“The pellet producers say they are taking residues, but they’re taking trees up to 2 feet in diameter, big trees that store a lot of carbon,” Carr said. “You’re burning that immediately and putting all that carbon in the atmosphere.”

“There’s no commitment those forests will regrow, no legal obligation to replant them, and it’s nearly all being exported,” he said. “We are the third world on this one.”