(CN) — It’s the rave in Europe: Instead of burning coal and fossil fuels to generate heat and electricity, wood chips and pellets are being fed into Europe’s boilers. In what critics consider a dangerous sleight-of-hand and act of political greenwashing, an updated set of European Union rules encourage the burning of wood in power plants and claim it’s “carbon neutral” — meaning it won’t add to the planet’s warming — under the assumption that trees grow back.
This strategy plays a big part in the EU’s plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The rules allow European governments to subsidize power plants to convert from burning coal and fossil fuels to burning wood. Across Europe, governments are under pressure to close coal-fired plants.
So-called “biomass energy” is also becoming more popular in Japan and Korea, and some in the United States are pushing for greater reliance on wood-burning.
But many scientists and environmentalists say this is backward thinking that will accelerate the disastrous felling of forests and loss of biodiversity.
Power plants in Europe are increasing the burning of wood pellets from the United States, Canada and Eastern Europe. Environmentalists warn that old forests in those places are being chopped up and left to regrow, or in some cases replaced by forest plantations.
But it’s not only the loss of old forests that worries scientists. Studies have shown that wood-burning power plants emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced than plants burning fossil fuels.
Even taking forest regrowth into account, scientists warn that over decades and centuries burning wood adds more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than producing energy the old-fashioned way by burning coal and fossil fuels does.
The EU’s wood-burning policy is the subject of a legal challenge filed by environmental groups and individuals in Europe and the United States seeking to end the EU’s support for wood burning.
“We’re not saying nobody should burn wood again; what we’re saying is that we should not give billions of dollars in subsidies to power plants to burn wood,” said Mary Booth, the director of U.S.-based nonprofit Partnership for Policy Integrity and a scientific adviser for the plaintiffs. “It’s a false solution.”
The lawsuit was brought by groups and individuals in Romania, Ireland, Slovakia, France, Estonia and the United States who say their homelands are threatened and being damaged by heavy logging, and in the case of a plaintiff in Ireland, furthering the loss of peat in bogs.
The suit was filed in March at the European General Court in Luxembourg, which handles cases involving EU institutions. Named as defendants are the European Commission, the EU’s executive and lawmaking power, and the European Council, which is made up of the EU’s heads of state.
Under the court’s rules, the details of the lawsuit are not publicly available until the court decides whether it will take up the case. If it does, it would be the first time the court considers a case brought by nongovernmental organizations, the plaintiffs said.
So, besides striking out against the EU’s notion that burning wood is a good replacement for coal, the case challenges the European court’s strict approach to “standing,” the legal term to describe who has a right to bring a case.
Since a 1963 ruling involving the importation of clementines, a hybrid orange, EU courts have refused to accept cases unless plaintiffs can prove they are “‘directly and individually’ concerned by the decision they seek to challenge,” according to Leigh Day, a London-based law firm handling the suit.
The law firm said this position has been “the subject of controversy for decades” and considered a violation of the Aarhus Convention, an international accord that sets standards for environmental rights such as access to information, public participation and environmental justice.
Specifically, the lawsuit challenges provisions in rules the EU passed last year that lay out how member states can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet targets set out in the Paris Agreement on the climate. Those rules are contained in the Renewable Energy Directive, which mandates that the EU generate at least 32% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.
Under this set of rules, the EU considers burning biomass for heat and energy production a form of renewable energy. The suit seeks to get this provision tossed out.
“It’s hard to imagine a more counterproductive policy than burning forests for fuel,” said Raul Cazan with 2Celsius in Romania, whose group is one of the plaintiffs.
But Europe’s appetite for wood is big and growing.
EU figures show that about half of Europe’s renewable energy was produced by burning wood in 2016. The plaintiffs say that burning wood for energy production will increase under the updated rules.
The European Commission declined requests from Courthouse News to comment about the suit and its biomass policy.
Many scientists — including some of the EU’s own scientific advisers — say the assumption that burning wood is a renewable source of energy is seriously flawed on many levels.
“At a critical moment when countries need to be ‘buying time’ against climate change, this approach amounts to ‘selling’ the world’s limited time to combat it,” European scientists warned the commission last year in a letter.
“The example Europe would set for other countries would be even more dangerous,” the letter continued. “Europe has been properly encouraging countries such as Indonesia and Brazil to protect their forests, but the message of this directive is ‘cut your forests so long as someone burns them for energy.’”
First of all, critics say cutting down trees to use them for energy releases carbon that would otherwise stay locked up in forests. Also, forests suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Burning wood is a very inefficient way of producing energy, critics say. Studies have shown that burning wood emits far more carbon than burning fossil fuels for each kilowatt hour of electricity produced.
“Burning any biomass emits a lot of carbon at the stack” of power plants, Booth said.
Another problem with the EU’s rules is that they assume forests will grow back or be replanted. But even if forests are replanted, they will take a long time to grow back and in the meantime their ability to suck carbon out of the air is reduced.
Europe could end up spending vast amounts on helping companies convert to wood-burning. England provides the best example: the Drax power plant in North Yorkshire.
For the past 15 years, the massive power plant has converted much of its production from coal to biomass, and in doing so has received massive subsidies. In 2018, for example, it got an estimated $1 billion in subsidies. Besides wood, the plant burns agricultural waste, which is considered a less damaging source of biomass. The power plant did not reply to requests for comment.
Scientists also worry that the increase in demand for wood to create power will put even more pressure on the world’s forests, already heavily threatened by logging.
In Ireland, the concern is that these EU rules are giving a new lease on life to three large power plants that burn peat extracted from the country’s bogs.
Arguing that it was in keeping with EU rules, the Irish government recently allowed the plants to continue burning peat as long as one-third of the fuel used comes from biomass, said Tony Lowes, one of the plaintiffs and the director of Friends of the Irish Environment, a group fighting peat mining.
“This biomass introduction has given a kind of free ride to the continuing peat extraction,” Lowes said in a telephone interview. Peat has long been used as a source of heating in Ireland but since the 1980s its extraction has reached industrial scale and become very damaging, Lowes said.
In France, environmentalists involved with the lawsuit are fighting the burning of biomass at a coal-burning power plant in the town of Gardanne in Provence. The plant is receiving government subsidies to convert to burning biomass.
Nicholas Bell, a coordinator with the SOS Forêt du Sud, said the facility’s plans include harvesting wood from France to burn, and that will bring deforestation, which he called a disaster wherever it occurs, close to home.
“The initial worry for most people was the impact on the forest and countryside,” Bell said in a telephone interview. “Provence is a beautiful part of France.”
Bell said residents living near the noisy power plant, which he said has suffered frequent mechanical problems since it started burning biomass, also are concerned about the health risks posed by burning wood. Wood fires emit high levels of fine particles, he said. Another threat comes from wood dust being blown onto houses and people. The plant takes wood and grinds it into chips on site, he said.
“Biomass would never be viable unless there are public grants,” Bell said. “All of the people contesting industrial-scale biomass were angry and disappointed by that directive; it allows all of this to carry on with public funding.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)