Europe wants to double its use of renewable energy by 2030, which is a seemingly laudable goal. But a stipulation of the plan has scientists worried about its counterintuitive effects.
The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive classifies wood as a low-carbon fuel source, and would encourage deforestation around the world, critics say. In a new paper published today to Nature Communications, eight international scientists condemned the plan for ignoring the advice of hundreds of experts, and likely increasing atmospheric carbon “for decades to centuries” to come.
“Most people who [agree with these incentives to burn wood for fuel] have never even done the basic calculations about the total quantity of wood that’s at stake,” Tim Searchinger, researcher scholar at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, told Motherboard.
“You can calculate very easily how much energy is in all that wood,” Searchinger said. “And it’s a lot of trees but it’s not a lot of energy.”
Earlier this year, as the European Parliament was finalizing its plan, a group of nearly 800 scientists urged members in a letter to amend the directive—omitting a flaw “that would let countries, power plants and factories claim credit toward renewable energy targets for deliberately cutting down trees to burn them for energy.”
The new directive was part of a push for clean energy for all Europeans; to ostensibly meet climate goals set by the Paris Agreement, which the EU ratified in 2016 and has since treated with varying degrees of commitment.
Many scientists dispute the plan for several key reasons. One is that wood harvested sustainably for bioenergy—that’s organic material used for fuel—would be counted as carbon neutral. But, as the paper argues, “sustainable does not equal low carbon.” Deforestation worsens climate change by releasing carbon stored in trees into the atmosphere, and preventing forests, or “carbon sinks,” from absorbing greenhouse gases for decades at a time.
Healthy forests help to hold down climate change, Searchinger added. And regreening these ecosystems is one strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
The directive also contains accounting errors, the authors state. A historical flaw in how emissions are recorded means that wood bioenergy can be called carbon neutral. Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, if a tree is burned for fuel in Europe, the emissions needn’t be counted there. But in the country where the tree was harvested, that lost carbon must be recorded. And the “vast majority of countries, if they’re counting [these emissions] at all, aren’t restricting it,” Searchinger claimed.
“It’s literally true [under these rules] that you could cut down the Amazon, turn it into parking lot, ship those trees to Europe, and Europe would count it as as greenhouse gas reduction,” Searchinger added.
Another error also miscalculates the emissions produced by burning wood, the paper argues.
Power plants that burn wood chips emit one and a half times the amount of carbon as those using coal, and three times as much as those using natural gas.
While the directive is essentially a done deal, it still allows countries to decide how to implement it. A nation could opt for wind or solar energy over wood bioenergy, though it would need strong incentives. For example, a country could impose a fee on harvesting wood, which would ultimately raise its cost and make wood too expensive for Europe to import for fuel.
Similar debates are occurring here in the United States. Several lawmakers have tried to designated wood as a carbon neutral energy source. The logging industry arguing in favor of it, and many scientists opposing it.
“The directive gives an incentive to burn trees but countries could decide to do the right thing,” Searchinger said. “That’s the question. The risk is high, and so is the amount of forest at stake.”