European Parliament finally wakes up on biomass threat

Posted on September, 14 2022

In the middle of a roaring energy crisis, and in the teeth of a massive lobbying push by corporate interests, the European Parliament today took its first steps towards fixing the forest biomass problem in its vote on the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). MEPs have finally listened to the science and have voted to put a cap on the amount of primary woody biomass that will count as renewables. On the other hand, the Parliament failed to introduce strong sustainability criteria for hydropower after intense lobbying by conservative groups.
Burning forests for energy to be capped

MEPs today voted to limit the damage inflicted on the climate by EU biomass policies by voting for an exclusion of primary woody biomass from receiving subsidies and putting a cap on the amount that can count as renewable energy. For years the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) has encouraged Member States to burn more and more trees in the name of climate action, despite this practice increasing emissions for decades or even centuries compared to fossil fuels.

“EU bioenergy policies are a serious climate threat and for years have been a stain on EU climate leadership. But today marks a turning point: for the first time an EU institution has recognised that burning trees might not be the best way of getting off fossil fuels and stopping runaway climate change.” said Alex Mason, Head of EU Climate and Energy Policy at WWF European Policy Office

“But there’s still some way to go. A majority in the Parliament is still in thrall to the biofuels lobby, and can’t seem to understand that growing crops to burn just increases emissions compared to fossil fuels,Mason added.

Missed opportunity on hydropower

Despite proposals from the ENVI and ITRE Committees to introduce strong and concrete conditions for hydropower to count towards the European Union’s renewable energy target, MEPs have followed the recommendations of Conservative groups to water down the criteria. The final text voted by the Parliament only requires hydropower to be produced at plants which are in line with the Water Framework Directive - an obligation already enshrined in the Water Law. 

While making the transition to renewable energy, it is also important to take nature into account. Hydropower plants destroy Europe’s last free-flowing rivers and accelerate the loss of our migratory fish species, such as salmon or eel. Building new hydropower plants runs contrary to the objective of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to restore free-flowing rivers.

“Hydropower development without limits is in complete contradiction with EU water and biodiversity policies and is not a sustainable solution to achieve climate neutrality. Even small hydropower plants fragment rivers and have wide impacts on nature, while producing negligible amounts of electricity. We need to make sure that hydropower does not do more damage than good, therefore sustainability criteria should be in place as soon as possible. The Council must make sure that strong sustainability criteria for hydropower are included in the final text.” said Claire Baffert, Senior Water Policy Officer at WWF European Policy Office.

As the European Parliament has taken the first steps towards a more sustainable and genuinely renewable RED, it is now up to Member States in the Council to get with the programme, or to explain to their citizens why they consider that burning more trees is a good way to tackle the climate emergency. 

Negotiations on the Commission’s REPowerEU proposals, which include ill-thought-out exemptions from EU nature protection legislation, continue in parallel, so further big battles can be expected in the months to come.

Florian Cassier
Climate Communications Officer, WWF European Policy Office
+32 479 33 92 11
Biomass power plant in France that burns tree trunks for energy
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