As EU lawmakers return to Brussels after the New Year holiday, they are prepping for a major battle over a proposed revision of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive. While the headline battle will be over whether national governments in the EU Council are successful in watering down the EU’s 2030 renewables target from 45% to 40%, a more niche issue is turning into one of the most contentious aspects of the negotiations between member states and MEPs: how much woody biomass to count toward that target.

In September 2022, the European Parliament voted to cap the amount of “woody biomass” that can be used to meet the target, meaning that the use of wood from forests would be severely restricted. That text must now be reconciled with the position of the Council, which does not want to limit the use of woody biomass. Negotiations on behalf of national governments will be conducted by Sweden, which took over the rotating Council presidency on 1 January. Forestry is a big part of Sweden’s economy and the Swedish forestry lobby is powerful both in Stockholm and Brussels. Negotiations began last month, with the aim of reaching an agreement on a final text in the next weeks.

Ville Niinistö, a Finnish Green MEP involved in the negotiations, says limits are needed to prevent deforestation. “We should not lock ourselves into bioenergy in a way that creates increasing harm to biodiversity, and that harm increases decade by decade,” he said at an event in Brussels last month. MEPs have pointed to a 2017 report from Chatham House finding that increased biomass use would not be carbon-neutral, to justify the limitation.

Energy security

But biomass associations, utilities and some local authorities warn this could kill a developing market for fossil fuel alternatives when such alternatives are desperately needed. Also last month, a group of 70 companies and organisations wrote a letter to members of the Parliament asking them to reconsider their position before negotiations started with the Council – noting that a loss of biomass would be particularly harmful for district heating systems. The letter, coordinated by the district heating association Euroheat & Power, was signed by major energy companies such as EDF, Engie, Uniper and PGE.

“Bioenergy and in particular woody biomass is Europe’s most prominent local and sustainable energy source,” the letter states. “It represents 10% of the total energy we consume, with over 96% of biomass produced domestically. Sustainable bioenergy contributes to the decarbonization of our energy system, but it is also an important resource to guarantee Europe’s energy independence considering the drastic and unprecedented energy shortage.”

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The World Biomass Association has disputed the findings of the Chatham House report. “The use of carbon biomass does not add additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as compared to fossil fuels,” it said in a statement. “Even if the biomass is not used for energy, it would return to the atmosphere as wood decay.”

Pauline Lucas, policy director at Euroheat & Power, says the EU should be using “all sustainable heating sources that we have at hand”. Bioenergy accounts for 20% of the energy mix in district heating in the EU and limiting its use would derail the decarbonisation pathway of the sector, she said at the Brussels event where Niinistö spoke last month. “The real challenge that we are facing within the next two to three years is actually to address energy security, and basically keeping ourselves warm and our industries afloat.”

Alarmed by the pressure on MEPs to abandon their biomass limit, deforestation campaign groups have launched their own lobbying campaign saying there are risks to allowing biomass to count towards the EU's renewables target because it would translate into generous government subsidies that further develop the industry at the expense of forests.

“The EU’s forests are in trouble and need protection,” Mary S. Booth, director of the non-profit group Partnership for Policy Integrity, said in an op-ed in November. “A big part of the problem is intensive logging, including for biomass energy. The EU burns more than half the wood it harvests for energy, but far from being ‘carbon neutral’, logging and burning trees for energy hollows out forests and emits more CO2 per unit of energy than fossil fuels, increasing net emissions for decades to centuries.” Forests act as natural carbon sinks, which remove carbon from the atmosphere, and they form the backbone of the EU’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Essentially, they are the net part.

For his part, Niinistö says he is unconvinced by the arguments linking the issue to the energy security crisis, noting that the EU is setting policy that will last for decades. “In many places you can see in the short term, in many member states, bioenergy currently can be a better alternative than fossil fuels,” he said. “But at the same time investing more into that means that we stick ourselves into burning [wood] as a source of creating energy, and what we need to look at when we look 20–30 years forward, we should go beyond burning. We have better energy solutions than burning.” Those better energy solutions like solar and wind will receive less investment if governments are pouring money into biomass, he said.

EU biomass: Sticks or wood?

A central disagreement between the two sides is whether the woody biomass the Parliament wants to exclude is actually from trees that would otherwise be living. The industry says the way the Parliament has defined “woody biomass” would also apply to already-decomposing wood that has no benefit for forestry or carbon sequestration. “This definition does not reflect the reality of forest management and sustainable bioenergy,” its letter states. “If not [used for] efficient energy production, primary biomass residues are often crushed and left to decompose on the forest floor. These resources should not be wasted, but used to replace fossil fuels, as recently pointed out by over 550 scientists globally.”

But campaigners say a tighter definition is needed because, in the past, looser definitions have resulted in logging for biomass. In fact, at the time of the Parliament's vote in September, they said its definition did not go far enough, leaving open “loopholes” for forests affected by pests, forests logged for fire prevention, and forests affected by natural disasters. “Perversely, rather than reducing burning forest biomass, as MEPs who supported it intended, the large number of loopholes in the definition mean it could lead to an increase in burning trees, contributing to even more climate and biodiversity destruction. It is critically important that these loopholes are corrected during [negotiations],” said Booth.

Niinistö said the final definition needs to respect the “cascading principle” that would ensure wood is only burned if there is no other possible use for it. He points out that even branches on the ground are not useless to a forest. “Not everything from a forest is supposed to be collected. The forest needs for its growth also to have biomass there decomposing. For biodiversity, you need a lot of dead trees on the ground.”

“I think in Finland, even the forestry people know that we are at the maximum capacity for bioenergy already,” he said. “People know that we can’t get more out sustainably. You’re working against future trends by trying to maximise the use of forests for burning.”