Burning Wood for Energy Threatens European Forests

Wood is considered both a renewable and carbon-neutral energy source in Europe. However, large swaths of forests are being clear-cut to cover the demand for wood.

By Costas Vasilopoulos
Sep. 20, 2022 13:42 UTC

In an effort to move away from fos­sil fuels, the European Union has been sub­si­diz­ing the burn­ing of wood for energy pro­duc­tion for more than a decade.

As a result, wood in all its forms, such as tree logs, for­est residues, crop waste and wood pel­lets, has become the most com­mon source of energy in Europe.

For the first time, an E.U. insti­tu­tion has rec­og­nized that burn­ing trees might not be the best way of get­ting off fos­sil fuels and stop­ping run­away cli­mate change.- Alex Mason, , head of E.U. cli­mate and energy pol­icy, WWF

However, large swathes of European forests are start­ing to dis­ap­pear to sat­isfy the grow­ing demand for wood across the con­ti­nent. The energy cri­sis spurred by the war in Ukraine has fur­ther exac­er­bated the prob­lem of clear-cut­ting European wood­lands.

In Finland and Estonia, forests, once con­sid­ered crit­i­cal points in the bat­tle to reduce car­bon diox­ide lev­els in the atmos­phere, are now regarded as car­bon emit­ters due to exten­sive log­ging.

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People buy wood pel­lets think­ing they’re the sus­tain­able choice, but in real­ity, they’re dri­ving the destruc­tion of Europe’s last wild forests,” said David Gehl of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington-based advo­cacy group.

In Romania, the New York Times tracked a load of trees har­vested from an eco­log­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant wood­land to a wood-pro­cess­ing plant that grinds the trees into saw­dust to form pel­lets. According to the American news­pa­per, the plant received hun­dreds of ship­ments of trees from pro­tected forests in the past year alone.

The hunger for wood in Europe has also crossed the Atlantic Ocean, fuel­ing a boom­ing indus­try with dev­as­tat­ing effects on the wood­lands of the rural south­east­ern United States.

Additionally, a study con­ducted by the E.U. last year found that burn­ing wood for energy causes more pol­lu­tion than receiv­ing the same amount of energy from fos­sil fuels.

Nevertheless, the energy pro­duced from wood is dubbed car­bon-neu­tral in Europe, and the Member States can freely use it to achieve their clean-energy tar­gets in the con­text of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The European Parliament voted to end pub­lic sub­si­dies for pri­mary woody bio­mass,’ aim­ing to taper off cut­ting down trees for energy pro­duc­tion. Using for­est residues and wood waste as an energy source, on the other hand, will remain eli­gi­ble for sub­si­dies.

For the first time, an E.U. insti­tu­tion has rec­og­nized that burn­ing trees might not be the best way of get­ting off fos­sil fuels and stop­ping run­away cli­mate change,” said Alex Mason, head of E.U. cli­mate and energy pol­icy at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The par­lia­men­tary bill has to be nego­ti­ated with the Council of the European Union and the European Commission before becom­ing law.

However, sev­eral European coun­tries, espe­cially in cen­tral and north­ern Europe, oppose the ini­tia­tive to phase down wood-burn­ing as an energy source, par­tic­u­larly while uncer­tainty exists over the deliv­ery of oil and gas ship­ments from Russia to Europe.

We need more domes­tic renew­able energy and self-suf­fi­ciency, not less,” Antti Kurvinen, the Finnish min­is­ter for agri­cul­ture and forestry, said. I will fully pro­mote for­est energy.”

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