One of the largest coal plants in Europe, Drax, is also a leading in coverting to burning wood, or biomassDrax Power Station in England, one of the largest coal burning power plants in Europe, has been a leader in using subsidies to convert to burning wood, or biomass. Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

Burning wood for energy—a practice known as biomass— undermines efforts to slow climate change and is no better for the climate than burning fossil fuels, according to a lawsuit filed Monday against the European Union.

The suit, which was filed in the European General Court in Luxembourg, asks the court to prevent EU countries from counting forest wood as a renewable energy source under the 2018 revised Renewable Energy Directive known as RED II. The plaintiffs—individuals and non-governmental organizations from Estonia, France, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, and the U.S.—allege the practice is harming their health and livelihoods. They point to research that shows wood-burning power plants are worse for the climate than coal-fired plants and result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and degradation of forest carbon sinks, which absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Carbon emissions from wood-fired power plants are not counted under RED II, making it appear as if they have zero emissions. And because wood is considered a renewable energy source, companies that convert their facilities from fossil fuel-burning to wood-burning receive renewable energy subsidies and helps them avoid taxes on carbon pollution.

The plaintiffs say energy derived from wood-burning also undermines the goals of the Paris Agreement. The agreement urges countries to protect carbon sinks, including forests and to “take action to implement and support […] activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.”

“The EU’s policy relies on the false and reckless assumption that burning forest wood is carbon neutral,” said Dr. Mary S. Booth, director of the U.S.-based Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) and lead science advisor on the case. “However, scientists from around the world, including the EU’s own science advisors, warned that burning forest wood actually increases emissions relative to fossil fuels.”

The lawsuits maintains that because RED II counts carbon emissions from biomass as zero, companies are converting existing coal plants in the EU and United Kingdom to biomass to make them eligible for public subsidies. As a result, they point to increased logging in the eastern Europe and the southeastern United States, which they say is harming their health, livelihoods, community and cultural traditions. They also say it is violating their rights under the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights.

The plaintiffs include North Carolina landowner Kent Roberson; Peter Sabo, a forest ecologist in Slovakia; Tony Lowes, a founding member of Friends of the Irish Environment, which has campaigned for more than a decade to close peat-burning power plants that could now receive a subsidy from Ireland if they convert to biomass; Hasso Krull, an expert and practitioner in an ancient pagan religion in Estonia, where logging has destroyed dozens of sacred sites; Bernard Auric and members of the Association de Lutte Contre Les Nuisances et la Pollution (ALNP), who say they have suffered harm to their health and property values during the conversion of a nearby coal plant to biomass; and 2Celsius, an organization working to protect Europe’s last remaining primeval forests.

If the court agrees to hear the potentially precedent-setting case, it will be the first time a non-governmental organization has been granted standing to challenge an EU law or regulation.

“If that happens, that itself would be very groundbreaking. It would dramatically increase access to climate justice in the European court,” Booth said.

An investigation by the nonprofit Climate Central in 2015 found that forests in the southeastern United States—including North Carolina—are a main source of wood burned in Europe, spreading the climate impacts across the Atlantic.

Across the southeastern U.S., thousands of acres of live oaks, flowering dogwoods, red maples, water tupelos, Atlantic white cedars and cypress work to absorb carbon when forests are left intact. Those trees are now being cut at an alarming rate by companies like Enviva, which manufactures wood pellets made of about 90 percent hardwood.

“The Southeast U.S. is a tree farm,”  University of Maryland geography professor Matthew Hansen told Climate Central. Hansen’s research found that from 2000 to 2012, nearly a third of Southern forests were cut down or regrown and logging was four times more disruptive in the forests of the U.S. Southeast than in South American rainforests. “It stands out globally. This is super-intensive use.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper urged a congressional subcommittee in February to work both nationally and internationally to combat climate change.

“We need federal legislation and regulations that promote emission reductions and the preservation of forests, marshes, barrier islands and other natural infrastructure that protect communities from the worsening effects of storms,” he said.

Regarding the manufacturing of wood pellets, Cooper said he is considering policy changes to “make sure our forests are protected.”

“I think we have to be careful about going too far with it,” Cooper said.

A greenhouse gas inventory released by the Cooper administration the day after he testified assumes that wood pellets manufactured in his state will create carbon emissions. The inventory also lists the harvesting of wood products as a carbon sink loss.

A newly-appointed group will assess the impacts of the wood pellet industry on North Carolina’s forests.

Roberson, who lives near the Enviva Ahoskie wood pellet manufacturing plant, said he’s seen logging increase tremendously over the past 10 years.  

“Whereas the companies used to do selective cutting, now they just go in and mow everything down indiscriminately,” Roberson said. “They log a lot more than they used to—especially down in the wetlands. There are places around the Roanoke River that are bare and have been deforested right down to the bank. They lay logs down in the creek beds so they can drive the equipment in there.”

The U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets. Between 2013 and 2017, exports increased by 78 percent and in 2017 more than 99 percent of the wood pellets exported from the U.S. went to the EU. Wood is the largest source of what is considered renewable energy in the EU and accounts for nearly half the renewable energy in Europe.

Booth said subsidize wood-burning companies is not good climate policy.

“The end game is we want to reduce emissions—and if we’re subsidizing renewable energy that actually increases emissions then, let’s get rid of that goal,” Booth said. “Then you’d have more money flowing into truly green zero carbon-emission renewables and an increased awareness and focus on restoring and rebuilding the forest carbon sink, which is what we need to be doing to mitigate climate change.”

Roberson said he worries about what will happen to his land and community if the subsidies continue.  

“About five years ago, logging companies approached me and my neighbors asking us to sell our trees. They said that the old hardwood in our woods were ‘ready’ and we could earn good money. I declined but my neighbors agreed,” said Roberson, who said his 30 acres is now a small island of old forest surrounded by open space and new growth that exacerbates flooding during storms.

“It does not make sense that cutting forests can have no impact on climate change. We have to count the carbon that is put in the air when we burn anything. Calling those pellets zero carbon emissions doesn’t make sense. I’d would think a grade school student could understand it—it’s common sense.”

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