TALLINN - A discussion of the present decade's developments in renewable energy within the European Commission is nearing its end, and the burning of wood, a hotly debated topic, is being backed by EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson, who seems to justify it with superficial knowledge, sparking severe criticism among Swedish and US experts.
"By promoting burning forest biomass for fuel, Kadri Simson is undermining the EU's emission reduction goals and biodiversity goals," Mary S. Booth, US doctor of ecology and founder and director of Partnership for Policy Integrity, told BNS.
"She is favoring the economic interests of her home country's most exploitative industry over the survival of forest ecosystems and a livable climate," Booth added.
At the Nordic-Baltic Energy conference "Energy delivery in the European Green Deal" on June 29, Simson said that climate goals were within sight -- climate neutrality could be achieved in one generation and emissions would be reduced by at least 50 percent by the end of the decade. Simson also said at he conference that the Nordic countries show not only how to use biomass sustainably, but also know how to achieve such a result without overexploiting natural resources. However, Lina Burnelius, spokeswoman for Sweden's forest protection organization Skydda Skogen, does not share Simson's view that Sweden takes good care of its forests and could be leading the way in the responsible use of biomass.
"Sweden is actually very much overexploiting its natural resources," Burnelius said. "And the existing sustainability criteria in the Renewable Energy Directive are not strong enough to prevent further pressure on Sweden's last remaining natural forests. A majority of planted trees in Sweden are young and not ready to be harvested. Therefore, large areas of remaining unprotected high conservation-value forests are being logged, and ecologically-destructive clear cutting is the main harvesting method used. Furthermore, it is often dead wood and deciduous trees vital for biological diversity that are used in heating-plants. None of this would be prevented by the sustainability criteria of the Renewable Energy Directive."
The assessments of Simson and Burnelius differ, probably because Simson's meetings are mainly limited to representatives of the Swedish forest industry, who have their own economic interests at stake, and to the politicians who are their advocates.
Between 2014 and 2017, approximately 39 percent of sensitive and biologically important habitats were negatively affected by harvesting. According to official data provided under the EU Habitats Directive, 14 of every 15 forest biotopes in Sweden have not been given a favorable conservation status. The annual environmental quality report of the Swedish Forest Agency also shows a negative trend for the forests.
Burnelius outlined the statistics that, given Sweden's slow rate of protection and rapid rate of logging, virtually all unprotected natural forests will be lost in approximately nine years -- mostly due to climate-damaging biofuels and disposable products.
Doctor of ecology Mary S. Booth is even more critical of Simson than Burnelius.
"Kadri Simson presides over the directorate that has done the most to promote burning wood for energy, and ignored the EC's science on the climate, forest, and air quality impacts the most," Booth told BNS. "Now we hear that she is working to weaken proposals for reform of the sustainability criteria, to ensure that forest wood continues to be burned in power plants."
"As she is from Estonia and should be very aware of the enormous damage that the Estonian wood pellet industry is doing to forests, including clear cutting forests to make wood pellets," Booth said.
EU forests are in a crisis, but not only in Booth's view. These forests sequester 15 percent less carbon dioxide than 20 years ago. If current management practices continue, the carbon dioxide sequestration capacity of EU forests will be halved by 2050. The functioning of ecosystems and biodiversity will collapse at current logging volumes. Politicians have realized that something needs to be done. For example, the EU's climate chief, Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, has confirmed that 75 percent of our forests are in poor condition. Timmermans -- who is, incidentally, a cavalier of the Cross of Terra Mariana -- has also admitted that we are facing an enormous biodiversity challenge and that ecocide is threatening the viability of forests.
The problem is that the EU's two goals on climate -- of increasing the use of renewable energy, and of reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- are not mutually supportive, Booth said. Specifically, the EU is already heavily dependent on burning biomass for renewable energy. While bioenergy as a whole constitutes about 60 percent of the renewable energy in the EU, forest biomass is around 20 percent.
To clarify -- "forest" biomass is biomass sourced directly from forests, also known as "primary woody biomass," as opposed to "secondary woody biomass" which is mill residues and post-consumer wood waste, Booth said, adding that this dependency has been allowed to increase even though the European Commission's own scientists have acknowledged that burning wood emits more carbon dioxide than burning coal, and trees regrow too slowly to offset those emissions.
The European Commission's 2016 impact assessment on the sustainability of bioenergy acknowledges the problem: "compared to crops which regrow over short periods, forest biomass is part of a much longer carbon cycle. A forest stand typically takes between decades and a century to reach maturity."
The Commission's impact assessment rejected the equivalence of carbon neutrality and "sustainability": "Certain forest management practices can enhance the carbon sink, but ensuring that the harvest level stays below the growth rate of the forest is not sufficient to ensure climate change mitigation."
According to the impact assessment, any sustainability policy must aim to ensure that the use of bioenergy makes a significant contribution to climate change mitigation, taking into account the carbon footprint of trees themselves. However, if forests are overharvested, their ability to sequester carbon will decrease.
The recent JRC (Joint Research Council) report on biomass also found that even burning just forestry residues -- for example, the tops and limbs left over after sawtimber harvesting -- increases emissions for 10-20 years compared to fossil fuels. Harvesting forestry residues causes a grave threat to ecosystem function and biodiversity, as well.
In other words, the more forest biomass is burned under the label of renewable energy sources, the more it undermines the EU's ability to meet its greenhouse gas reduction and biodiversity restoration goals.
Booth criticizes the European Commission for never having conducted an impact assessment of the burning of wood for energy purposes, including emissions from burning wood. The assessment should also include how long it would take for forests to regrow to offset these emissions.