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EU limits subsidies for burning trees under renewable energy directive

The European parliament has called to end public subsidies for the environmentally destructive practice of burning trees for fuel, but campaigners warned the plans risked being “too little, too late”.

Voting on an amendment to the EU’s renewable energy directive, MEPs called to “phase down” the share of trees counted as renewable energy in EU targets. But they swerved setting any dates to reduce the burning of “primary wood”. They rejected calls for a complete phaseout of a form of energy generation that scientists have warned releases more carbon into the atmosphere than burning gas or coal.

The EU wants to expand renewable energy as fast as possible, as it seeks to accelerate the green transition and end dependence on Russian fossil fuels. MEPs voted for 45% of EU energy to come from renewable sources by 2030.

Behind this headline target, Europe’s dash for bioenergy has caused growing alarm. More than 500 scientists last year called on EU and world leaders to end subsidies for wood burning.

“There has been a misguided move to cut down whole trees or to divert large portions of stem wood for bioenergy, releasing carbon that would otherwise stay locked up in forests,” stated the letter.

The scientists state that the large increase in carbon emissions caused by felling trees creates a “carbon debt” the world does not have time to repay. “Trees are more valuable alive than dead both for climate and for biodiversity,” they wrote.

In a long-awaited vote on Wednesday, MEPs voted to end subsidies for “primary woody biomass”, namely healthy, standing trees logged for fuel, or fallen trees. Trees cut down for fire protection or road safety reasons may continue to benefit from renewable energy subsidies, under the parliament’s proposals.

The vote sets the stage for negotiations between MEPs and the EU’s 27 national governments.

Alex Mason, head of EU climate and energy policy at WWF, described the MEPs’ vote as a turning point: “For the first time, an EU institution has recognised that burning trees might not be the best way of getting off fossil fuels and stopping runaway climate change.”

Fenna Swart, director of the Clean Air Committee in the Netherlands, said the amendments were “at best a first step toward what is needed to limit the damage caused to forests in Europe and abroad” by the renewable energy directive’s “perverse” incentives. “We cannot afford to wait years before the phasedown goes into effect,” she said.

According to the European Commission, the EU spent €13bn (£11bn) in bioenergy subsidies in 2020, down from €17bn the previous year. NGOs say most of those subsidies go to wood-burning power plants, but could be better targeted on support for clean technology, such as heat pumps.

The vote follows an investigation that found trees in eastern Europe’s protected forests were being chopped down and turned into wood pellets for heating. The study, by the US-based Environmental Investigation Agency in collaboration with Greenpeace Romania, used maps, official data and field work to trace the journey of 120- to 130-year-old logs from their ancient forests to a pellet factory supplying customers in France, Italy and Poland.

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According to the EIA, about 40% of registered wood shipments leaving Romanian forests originate in protected areas – more than 7m sq metresof wood each year.

“Whilst the vote has not gone nearly as far as science and the planet needs, this is beginning of the end of the burning of wood as a ‘renewable’ energy,” said Ciprian Galusca of Greenpeace Romania. “The writing is on the wall for the industry. We need to quickly phase out of this dirty biomass industry and radically increase energy efficiency, insulate our homes better and change to true low emissions technologies such as wind and solar.”

Campaigners also voiced disappointment as MEPs rejected amendments to phase out growing crops for fuel, which campaigners say puts pressure on food prices at a time of scarcity.

In a statement published ahead of Wednesday’s vote, the industry association, Bioenergy Europe argued that any restrictions “will drive prices up and increase energy poverty because, in the short term, sustainable bioenergy can only be replaced with more expensive natural gas and coal”.

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