Former UNFCC chief casts further doubt on wood bioenergy subsidies

An ill wind? When renewable energy is not renewable

Adding his voice to a growing chorus of scientific concerns that wood bioenergy burning worsens rather than resolves climate change, highly respected former UNFCC Vice Chairman of Jean-Pascal van Ypersele has issued a clear statement:

“To subsidise an activity that has negative consequences for the climate and the environment is totally contradictory with the goals of the Paris Agreement and the goals of the conference (COP26) due to take place in Glasgow at the end of the year.”

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New legal structure for long-term protection

The transformative effect of a 150 year protection lease? 

A mechanism is being developed to offer private owners the opportunity to protect wild or wilderness areas on their land effectively ‘in perpetuity’.

The initiative has been created by a partnership between Wild Europe and the Lifescape Project conservation charity in tandem with international law firm Clifford Chance LLP.

Known as “The Legal Mechanism”, this involves legal owners granting a guardian charity the right to enforce ecological protections over the land for 150 years or more, whilst retaining effective ownership of the land for themselves and their descendants, using a leasehold structure. The leases would contain covenants stipulating land use that gives full protection to ecosystems with their wildlife.

Based on well-established procedure in the ‘built’ property sector, the concept is now proven for legislatures in England, Wales and Scotland; a technical brochure has been produced and initial consultations are taking place with landowners. 

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Wild Europe input to Consultation on EU Climate Target

Wild Europe’s feedback on 15th April welcomed the more ambitious target of a 50%+ drop in the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. 

However it warned that, if subsidies for wood biomass continue, this target would be at risk – as would the EU’s continuing credibility as a respected proponent of best environmental practice.

Payment of these subsidies is a burden on productive business and personal livelihoods. As economies slowly rebuild post COVID-19, proponents of wood bioenergy subsidy will not be lightly forgiven for supporting the wastage of scarce capital on an expensive myth of renewable energy that actually worsens the climate change it claims to mitigate.

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“Not all biomass is carbon neutral” First sign of realism from the wood bioenergy industry?

At last key figures in wood bioenergy burning are acknowledging rapidly accumulating scientific evidence on the worsening of climate change caused by their industry.

Not all biomass should automatically be categorised as carbon neutral” admitted a “chief sustainability officer” of US-based Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets for commercial power generation, during a webinar discussion on 29th June.

The wood bioenergy industry – going up in smoke? (Dogwood Alliance)

The overall message still lacks full credibility. “To bring climate benefits, biomass needs to come from low-value wood residues or smaller trees coming from timber harvests – not from high-value trees that could be used in products like furniture or construction material” the Enviva spokesperson is reported as saying. 

The narrative is thus more about not burning valuable quality timber than the notoriously high emissions from wood bioenergy – and no doubt results from growing concern even within the forestry sector about such blatant wastage.  Many energy plants claim to only burn residues, despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary, and there is widespread practice of chipping timber into ‘residues’.

The first sign of realism?

Nonetheless this admittance marks the first sign of realism from a wood bioenergy sector that has devoured massive quantities of consumer and taxpayer resources, to the tune of some 6.5 billion Euros for just 15 EU countries in 2017, despite wood being the least efficient form of renewable energy with emissions even higher than natural gas. 

Consuming 400 million tonnes per year of wood in Europe, wood bioenergy is devastating biodiversity rich forests and is likely to make crucial 2030 climate targets significantly less achievable.

Raising awareness of voters, consumers, taxpayers

An initiative is underway to raise awareness of this situation among voters, consumers and taxpayers. Their eyes will shortly be on policy makers to cease all subsidies to wood bioenergy, reallocating incentives to effective, less polluting sources of renewable energy as well as genuine means of addressing climate change such as insulation, recycling and emission reducing technology.

Banks, funds and general investors wood bioenergy should also take heed that the writing is firmly on the wall for the future value of their holdings.

Concern expressed over EC consultation on climate change target

Areal view of Romanian logged landscape
Romania’s new landscape. What message does EU wood bioenergy policy send to Bolsonaro about the Amazon rainforest?
(Andrei Ciurcanu, Agent Green)

A collective representation organized by Wild Europe in partnership with Birdlife International, expresses widely held concerns that the current EC consultation on the 2030 climate targets is misleading, and could end up undermining the mitigation of climate change.

It has been signed by 49 organisations across Europe in little over 48 hours.

The EC consultation questionnaire, which aims to collate opinion for developing energy and climate policies, effectively encourages agreement to more ambitious targets for greenhouse gas reduction in 2030 with greater use of renewable energy to achieve these. 

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TEG report calls for sharp curb to wood biomass burning

An independent EU Technical Expert Group (TEG) report just published recommends that only residues, thinnings and stumps should qualify as wood bioenergy fuel, along with separate “advanced bioenergy” feedstocks under the new Sustainable Finance Taxonomy (see technical annex for feedstocks). 

This in turn will determine eligibility for “green investment” status, counting towards renewable energy targets and involving literally hundreds of billions of Euros.

The recommendation is in sharp contrast to the broad leeway given for “whole tree” wood use by the EU’s Renewable Directive II. 

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Wood energy schemes “a disaster” for climate change

A study published in London on 23rd February 2017 by the well respected Royal Institute of International Affairs warns that most schemes to generate “low carbon electricity” from wood burning are actually doing the opposite, with carbon emissions from wood pellets higher than coal and considerably higher than gas.

Calculations of net carbon savings have not been counting emissions from the actual wood burning, merely assuming that these are countered by the sequestration impact of new plantings – which effectively leaves a large gap.

Hot air for climate policy - logging for renewable energy in Poloniny National Park Photo Peter Sabo, WOLF Forest Protection MovementHot air for climate policy – logging for renewable energy in Poloniny National Park Photo Peter Sabo, WOLF Forest Protection Movement

The Study also casts further doubt on the feasibility of BECCS (Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage), aimed at removing carbon from the environment by large-scale tree felling together with use of energy crops and storage underground of resulting carbon emissions. “However, all of the studies that the IPCC surveyed assumed that the biomass was zero-carbon at the point of combustion, which … is not a valid assumption. In addition, the slow rate of deployment of carbon capture and storage technology, and the extremely large areas of land that would be required to supply the woody biomass feedstock needed in the BECCS scenarios render its future development at scale highly unlikely.

Urgent review of biomass policy

Written by Duncan Brack, a former Special Advisor to the UK Government, the Study calls for immediate review of subsidies for biomass, which now supplies 65% of renewable power in the EU on the back of generous subsidies.

With the EC currently proposing a new Directive on Renewable Energy (draft published 30th November), there are growing calls for reallocation of subsidy exclusively towards wood waste products where there is no extra harvesting and proven carbon savings.

Impacts on biodiversity and illegal logging

This urgency of this call is underlined by an investigation published in November 2016 by BirdLife International with Transport & Environment showing that bioenergy plants are burning whole trees from protected areas rather than using forest waste.

This includes biomass from logging in Poloniny National Park (Slovakia), and riverine forests around Emilia-Romagna (Italy) where tree removal was apparently disguised as flood mitigation.

In Slovakia alone, according to the investigation, there has been an increase in use of wood for bioenergy of over 70% in the last 10 years, impelled by EU Renewable Energy targets. Under current legislation, European bioenergy plants do not have to produce evidence that their wood products have been sustainably sourced.