A European Commission report concludes that most forest biomass produces more greenhouse gas emissions than coal, oil and gas. And in 23 out of the 24 scenarios the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) examined, biomass had a negative impact on climate, biodiversity, or both. Indeed the report, published on the 25th of January 2021, finds that most of the forest biomass currently being burnt for energy in the EU not only increases emissions compared to fossil fuels, but does so for decades - which would imperil the EU’s net zero target for 2050 and chances of stopping runaway climate change.
We are running out of time to make the transformative changes needed to avert the worst impacts of the climate and ecological crisis. We urgently need to transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon renewable energy in a just and transparent way, that is consistent with science. We cannot afford to waste time on false solutions. This report highlights the main impacts of intensive forest management and the burgeoning forest biomass industry. It focuses on experiences in Estonia and Latvia, where growing demand for forest biomass has had significant negative impacts on the environment.
EASAC: “We would like to believe that we only extract the residual flows from the wood industry, but the practice is different now biomass is widely used. In the US, a lot of research has been done on where that imported wood pallets are made of: they consist of 80 percent whole trees.” "The idea was that a forest in a year or thirty would have grown back. Now we know it takes much longer - decades, maybe centuries - to the same amount CO2 released during forest combustion is included. That transition period that there net more CO2 is in the air, the carbon is called payback period. And we don't have the time for such a bridging period between cutting and regrowth."
RWE operates two coal power stations in the Netherlands: One in Eemshaven, near Groningen, the other (Amercentrale) in Geertruidenberg. In order to keep those two coal power stations and obtain subsidies, RWE has started burning 1.7 million tonnes of wood pellets per year (many or all of them sourced from the southern USA and the Baltic States) in Amercentrale and 0.8 million tonnes in de Eemshaven centrale, with a near-term plan to increase this to 3.3 million tonnes and a longer-term plan to convert both power stations to 100% biomass (in order to avoid having to close them when coal burning is phased out). This would require them to burn 7.5 million tonnes of pellets annually. This is double the amount of wood burning that has been agreed in the SER Energy Agreement 2013, namely a maximum of 25 PJ or around 3.5 million tonnes of wood pellets per year.
Investigations by countless media outlets and independent watchdogs over the past several years reveal the truth about the supply chains for pellets manufactured and exported by Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, to utilities in Europe including RWE in the Netherlands, Drax in the UK, and Orsted in Denmark. Independent media, government reports in the EU and the US, as well as the industry’s own reporting have confirmed our own investigations. They depict a disturbing pattern where wood pellets are harvested from native hardwood forests (1) in an area designated as a global biodiversity hotspot— all happening under the umbrella of “sustainable” sourcing standards.
Despite the biomass industry’s claims that it sources wood “sustainably,” on-the-ground investigations by media and independent watchdogs over the past decade have exposed the ecologically damaging logging practices—including the clearcutting of iconic wetland forests—used in the United States to source wood for pellets exported by Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer.
When compared to forests that have been degraded by large-scale human activities, intact forests are often more resistant to pressures such as fire and drought events and usually less accessible to logging and agricultural conversion. Avoiding the degradation or outright clearance of intact forests (which we collectively term “intact forest loss”) is therefore likely to be an important contributor to the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels, alongside other nature-based climate mitigation actions.