The European Union’s new renewable energy directive could trigger a new wave of deforestation, representing a grave threat to the world’s carbon sinks, by counting the burning of whole trees to produce energy as a carbon-neutral activity, a group of eight academics warns in the journal Nature Communications.
“This amounts to sawing off the branch on which humanity sits,” said Université Catholique de Louvain climate scientist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a co-author of the commentary and former vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He told The Guardian the risk of the directive encouraging tree clearances and the destruction of global carbon sinks was now “extremely high”.
Over the last decade, “Europe has expanded its use of wood harvested to burn directly for energy, much from U.S. and Canadian forests in the form of wood pellets,” the commentary states. “Contrary to repeated claims, almost 90% of these wood pellets come from the main stems of trees, mostly of pulpwood quality, or from sawdust otherwise used for wood products.”
While “makers of wood products have for decades generated electricity and heat from wood process wastes, which still supply the bulk of Europe’s forest-based bioenergy,” it states, “harvesting additional wood just for burning is likely to increase carbon in the atmosphere for decades to centuries.”
The authors explain that, “typically, around one-third or more of each harvested tree is contained in roots and small branches that are properly left in the forest to protect soils, but that decompose and release carbon. Wood that reaches a power plant can displace fossil emissions, but per kWh of electricity typically emits 1.5 times the CO2 of coal and 3 times the CO2 of natural gas because of wood’s carbon bonds, water content, and lower burning temperature (and pelletizing wood provides no net advantages).”
Yet more than two dozen countries including Indonesia and Brazil promised to increase their energy generation from wood at last year’s United Nations climate conference in Bonn, The Guardian notes. Unless new forest conservation measures are put in place, the new EU directive as it is currently drafted “will create a large demand for wood that will contribute to destroying those forests,” van Ypersele said. “It is a catastrophe in the making.”
Bioenergy Europe spokesperson Nino Aveni said new saplings could right the carbon imbalance from burning mature trees in “years to decades,” The Guardian reports. “Sustainability criteria are a guarantee that existing forest protection measures are applied to wood used for bioenergy production,” he said. “EU member states have already strong forest policies in place.”
But an EU official said the wood-burning provision is “a critical flaw” in the renewables directive, adding that, if anything, the new paper underestimates the problem. The directive will trigger “a race to the bottom, because there is no inherent limit to the potential over-harvesting,” the unnamed source told Guardian correspondent Arthur Neslen. “There is a high risk that it will involve the possibility of increasing emissions, with no possibility of any greenhouse gas savings at all.”
The official added that EU decision-makers just don’t understand the magnitude of the problem. “Partly that is because of wishful thinking. Partly it is so fundamentally wrong that most people would not believe it could be as wrong as it is.”