EU Parliament groups rally behind plans to end biomass subsidies – EURACTIV.com
The three largest political groups in the European Parliament have backed proposals to end subsidies for biomass used in power plants and exclude primary wood burning from the EU’s renewable energy targets.
The biomass amendments, part of the EU’s renewable energy directive, will be submitted to a plenary vote in the European Parliament on Wednesday (14 September).
“We’re going to end the subsidies,” said Nils Torvalds, a Finnish lawmaker from the Parliament’s centrist Renew group who is leading on the biomass proposal told EURACTIV.
“Due to the subsidies, there are some member states which are cutting much more wood in a way that is not acceptable. And therefore to end the subsidies is a first big step,” he added.
According to Torvalds, it “will easily find a majority” in plenary thanks to support from the Parliament’s three largest political groups – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the centrist Renew Europe.
The Finnish MEP believes biomass subsidies were necessary years ago to help bring first-generation biofuels to the EU market.
“But they cannot stay forever because they’re not useful anymore. They are counterproductive in many ways, economically as well as from a nature restoration and biodiversity point of view.”
“I don’t see any argument to keep the subsidies, except for greed.”
Industry association Bioenergy Europe refuted those claims, saying the subsidies support the EU economy and create jobs for European citizens.
“In addition, when comparing subsidies per unit of energy produced, biomass receives significantly less support than other renewable sources or fossil energy,” said Irene di Padua, Policy Director at Bioenergy Europe.
Bioenergy has been criticised by environmental groups who say burning wood drives deforestation, destroys natural habitats, and undermines forests acting as carbon sinks in the fight against climate change.
Activists claimed victory in May this year when the Parliament’s environment committee voted on new rules clarifying what can be counted as “sustainable biomass” under the EU’s revised renewable energy directive.
But they were left disappointed by the proposed compromise deal, which is now being submitted to the Parliament’s plenary.
“This deal….violates the spirit and letter of what the environment committee voted,” said Delia Villagrasa, senior advisor at the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PPI), a green pressure group.
While the regulation proposes to “phase down” biomass use, it fails to set an objective for 2030, Villagrasa told EURACTIV.
And since the phase down is linked to the “share” of renewable energies produced in Europe – which are expected to double at least by 2030 – the end result “could even allow an increase in burning trees, contributing to even more climate and biodiversity destruction,” she warned.
‘Primary’ biomass excluded
While ending subsidies seems rather consensual among MEPs, a more divisive question for them is to define the types of biomass that can be counted as “renewable” under the EU’s renewable energy directive.
“That is a much more complicated issue,” Torvalds admitted. Because if the definition of sustainable biomass is too broad, “it will lead to taking out more primary biomass from the forest than we think is acceptable”.
And that hinges on what constitutes “primary woody biomass” – or the type of wood that cannot be burned for energy production.
“The general rule is that primary biomass – meaning logs – cannot be used for renewable energy. And that’s our way of trying to steer away biomass from a non-acceptable usage,” Torvalds explained.
According to the compromise text, “‘primary woody biomass’ means all roundwood felled or otherwise harvested and removed,” including “branches, roots, stumps and burls (where these are harvested) and wood that is roughly shaped or pointed.”
It does not, however include “woody biomass obtained from sustainable wildfire prevention measures in high-risk fire-prone areas, woody biomass obtained from road safety measures, and woody biomass extracted from forests affected by natural disasters, active pests or diseases to prevent their spread” – all kinds of wood that would be acceptable under the EU’s renewable energy targets.
Industry association Bioenergy Europe said the Parliament’s proposals to ban the use of ‘primary biomass’ as renewable energy are “extremely worrying and we strongly oppose it”.
According to EU statistics, biomass makes up nearly 60% of all European renewable energy – more than wind and solar combined, the group reminded.
“While we firmly believe that robust criteria should be in place to guarantee the sustainability of bioenergy, we also know that such criteria must be laid out in a smart and efficient way which does not needlessly constrict the sector at a time when we are witnessing the worsening impacts of climate change across Europe, and seeing energy prices skyrocket,” said Irene di Padua, Policy Director at Bioenergy Europe.
In previous statements, the group warned against the position taken by the Parliament’s environment committee, saying its definition of ‘primary biomass’ was too strict and put 20% of Europe’s renewable energy at risk of being lost.
Combined heat and power plants
Another open question is whether biomass should be considered sustainable when burned in combined heat and power plants (CHP), which use wood pellets as fuel for simultaneous electricity and heat production.
CHP “is a more efficient way of burning biomass” than using wood pellets in household heaters, Torvalds said. “I don’t think that all these pellets are sustainable,” he told EURACTIV.
Finland and Sweden, which are the heaviest users of biomass in Europe, use pellets mostly in efficient CHP plants, but this is not the case in Italy, Denmark or Germany, where pellets tend to be burned in individual heaters, he said.
“If pellets are used in biomass power plants, we think they have an efficient way of burning them. But when you are speaking about individual flats, the way they are burned is not a very efficient one,” he explained.
However, there is no derogation for CHP foreseen in the compromise text, Torvalds said, expressing hope that this can be fixed when the directive comes up for final negotiation with EU member states in the coming months.
“The sticking point is whether we can find a science-based solution on the CHP issue… (and) see how it can be counted towards the target,” he said.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]