European Union Signals a Move Away from Wood Energy

European lawmakers voted this week to phase out some wood-energy subsidies, a recognition that more than a decade of government incentives has contributed to deforestation without curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

But Wednesday’s vote in the European Parliament leaves key details unsettled and no changes will take place for at least a year. Governments are under tremendous pressure to ease soaring energy prices this winter as Russia cuts its gas supply to Europe.

European governments began subsidizing wood energy more than a decade ago as a way to encourage power plants and homeowners to move away from oil and natural gas. A booming market for wood pellets sprung up. Wood is now Europe’s largest renewable energy source, far ahead of wind and solar.

The vote shows how dramatically political opinions of wood have shifted since last year, when government figures revealed that burning wood in the European Union released more carbon dioxide than would have been emitted had that energy come from fossil fuels.

“The writing is on the wall: Cutting down forests for energy use is neither sustainable, nor does it help with our energy independence,” said Tiemo Woelken, a German member of the European Parliament who supported ending the subsidies.

More than half of the wood harvested in Europe is burned for heat or electricity. This energy helps countries reach their renewable energy targets, since wood is renewable because trees ultimately grow back.

The New York Times showed last week that loggers are clearcutting areas in protected forests and grinding them into sawdust to make pellets for burning. These pellets are marketed as green, but by some measures, burning them releases more carbon than burning coal.

For years, governments have offered billions of dollars in tax break and financial incentives for wood pellet buyers and producers alike.

Money that encourages logging entire trees for energy will likely be unlawful in 2024. Wood energy from sawdust waste, trees logged for fire prevention and naturally fallen trees would still be eligible for subsidies.

And governments could still count wood power toward their clean energy goals, a provision that was welcomed by the trade group Bioenergy Europe, whose membership includes pellet manufacturers. But Maija Lepisto, the group’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email that it was counterproductive to weaken domestic power sources in the midst of an energy crisis.

“Limiting the use of a renewable source like bioenergy contradicts the climate ambitions of the European Union and affects the entire supply chain,” she said.

Mary S. Booth, an ecologist and director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said the bill passed in Parliament was too vague and difficult to enforce. She called for clear deadlines and targets.

The details remain murky and must still be worked out in discussions among national governments, a process that is expected to begin later this year or early next year. So lobbying on the issue will continue.

“I don’t see any easy solutions to those problems, especially if you take into account that we are going to have a substantial shortage of energy in Europe,” said Nils Torvalds, a member of the European Parliament from Finland. He said The Times’s report laid bare the unintended consequences of the subsidies. “We have a huge problem,” he said.

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