The backslide on renewables Europe can’t afford

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

It’s been a summer of extremes. Unprecedented drought, wildfire and heatwaves have battered the Continent while record-breaking energy prices have rocked its economies. These calamities are inflicting a human toll, and the hardship is expected to deepen as we head into autumn.

Our dependence on fossil fuels is the main culprit. While there are no quick and easy fixes, the path out of this situation is clear: we must accelerate our transition away from fossil fuels and break their grip on our climate and energy markets.  

This is why the European Parliament must vote in September to preserve the contributions of woody biomass. Sustainable biomass has already done more than any other renewable to keep fossil carbon safely in the ground. It has replaced increasing amounts of oil, coal and gas over the past few decades, and now accounts for 40 percent of Europe’s renewable energy consumption.

Sustainable biomass has already done more than any other renewable to keep fossil carbon safely in the ground.

Across Europe, residential as well as district heating systems and power stations, have converted from fossil fuels to run on the byproducts and residues of sustainable forestry operations. In total, woody biomass heats 50 million homes, generates 40 gigawatts of on-demand power, and makes a greater contribution to Europe’s renewable energy goals than all the Continent’s wind, solar and hydro output combined.

Biomass is the only renewable technology that is reliable, dispatchable and flexible. This means that supplies can be stepped up and down as needed to meet energy demands, which enables  more intermittent renewables like wind and solar to be deployed with confidence. It provides  the same grid-balancing service as fossil fuels, but without releasing carbon that has been stored in the Earth for millennia.  

It’s no surprise that the International Energy Agency (IEA), and the European Climate Foundation have both called for an increase in the use of biomass to help alleviate the current energy crisis. Their latest reports cite biomass as an important tool to address energy security while supporting climate action.

It’s no surprise that the International Energy Agency, and the European Climate Foundation have both called for an increase in the use of biomass to help alleviate the current energy crisis.

“Europe and the world do not have to choose between addressing today’s energy security crisis and the climate crisis,” said Dr Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA. “The lasting solution to both crises is a huge and rapid scaling up of investment in energy efficiency, renewables and other clean technologies.”

Critics incorrectly claim that biomass is driving forest destruction, and therefore any residuals taken after harvesting activities should no longer count toward renewable energy goals. This is the basis for proposed rules that would effectively eliminate the use of “primary woody biomass”. These unnecessary restrictions would wipe out 20 percent of the EU’s renewable energy and reduce the pan-EU renewable energy share to 17.7 percent, a level last seen in 2015.  

These unnecessary restrictions would wipe out 20% of the EU’s renewable energy, and reduce the pan-EU renewable energy share to 17.7%, a level last seen in 2015.

But this view ignores key facts about our demonstrated ability to source wood from forests while keeping them healthy. European forests are actually increasing both in area and growing stock. Between 1990 and 2015, EU countries reforested an area the size of Portugal, and the bloc’s forests today hold a larger reserve of wood than at any time since the Middle Ages.

The truth is that the damaging, extractive model of forestry that activists often portray was abandoned and replaced by regenerative forestry long ago. Decades of scientific research and experience inform the way that forests are now carefully managed, ensuring that ecosystem services and biodiversity are protected, while growing more wood than is harvested each year. The result is that the volume of wood in European forests has increased on average by more than 350 million m³ per year over the past 30 years.

Furthermore, biomass is subject to the most stringent rules among the entire forestry sector, addressing all elements of sustainability. These regulations were designed specifically for sourcing biomass from the forest and go beyond protecting biodiversity and maintaining the carbon stocks of source regions. They also demand supply-chain transparency and enforce accountability through certification systems and annual independent audits.

We know these regulations work as demonstrated by the data. Indeed, an IPCC scientist recently noted that the EU can “triple” the amount of biomass produced on a sustainable basis over the coming decades while strengthening green goals. 

It’s also critical to understand that cutting biomass from our energy mix will only increase our dependence on fossil fuels, not reduce it.

We have already seen that generators of heat and power cannot simply turn to intermittent wind and solar to fill the gap from reduced gas supplies. Instead, they have ramped up the use of coal, even reactivating mothballed plants to deal with the shortfall.

Eliminating primary woody biomass will accelerate this trend, further extending the life of coal and gas, and pumping more fossil carbon into the atmosphere at a time when we should be cutting it.   

“With wise choices, the EU has the potential to emerge from this crisis both stronger on energy security — through a greater reliance on home-grown renewable energy — and as a leader in the fight against climate change,” said Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation. Parliament must choose wisely in the upcoming plenary session. Eliminating primary woody biomass is a backslide on renewables that Europe cannot afford.