The world faces a daunting series of challenges, on every level – health, economic, social, and planetary. And at the end of another year which will be scarred by Covid-19, world leaders will gather in Scotland for the UN Climate Change conference and in China, for the Convention on Biological Diversity. Both summits are urgent.
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), we are on track for a civilization-threatening 3 degrees or more of global warming by the end of this century if we don’t change course. And one million species remain at threat from extinction, according to the IPBES. If the damage done by Covid-19 has shown us anything, it is the fragility of our societies but also the ability of science to help us to understand and to plot a course out.
It is from our continued hope that science and politics can be partners that I, alongside more than 500 of my peers in the scientific community, have written to five world leaders (the president of the European Council, the president of the European Commission, the US president, the prime minister of Japan and the president of South Korea) to ask them to intervene to end the practice of burning wood for energy at industrial scale – for which their countries and regions are very largely responsible.
Burning woody biomass for energy is seriously undermining efforts both to tackle climate change and to protect biodiversity. But, as the huge increase in forest harvesting for energy is driven almost exclusively by public subsidies in Europe, North America and East Asia, political leaders have it in their power to end these practices, reverse the trends and protect wildlife and climate. There is also emerging evidence that protecting biodiversity can also help prevent the spread of novel viruses.
Many are surprised to learn the scale of the problem. But with nearly €7 billion per year being spent on subsidizing the burning of wood in Europe, it is little wonder that wood pellet use has exploded from 17 Mt in 2013 to 26 Mt in 2018, a 50% jump in five years. If nothing is done, there are worrying signs that this huge growth will accelerate, as European coal plants look to shift to wood burning.
The European Green Deal has great potential to meet the challenges of climate change. In Brussels, we are pleased to see the European Commission consulting widely on revising the EU’s energy laws and we do not doubt EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen nor first vice-president Frans Timmermans’s commitment to the bloc’s climate neutrality target or to biodiversity protection.
But we mustn’t forget that it is the Renewable Energy Directive itself that is causing a great deal of the harm, as it was one of the first pieces of legislation to define wood burning as carbon neutral and so encourage it as a means of generating heat and electricity. We must tackle the problem at its root.
It simply doesn’t make sense, in climate terms, conservation terms or energy terms to burn wood at an industrial scale for energy. Much better, fully sustainable, clean and proven alternatives like wind and solar power exist.
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For decades, paper and timber producers have generated electricity and heat as by-products from their process wastes. This use does not lead to additional wood harvests. In recent years, however, there has been a misguided move to cut down whole trees or to divert large portions of stem wood for bioenergy, releasing carbon that would otherwise stay locked up in forests.
This leads to a large initial increase in carbon emissions, creating a “carbon debt,” which grows over time as more trees are harvested for continuing bioenergy use. Regrowing trees and displacing fossil fuels may eventually pay off this “carbon debt”, but regrowth is slow and the world does not have long to solve climate change. As numerous studies have shown, this burning of wood will increase warming for decades to centuries. This is true even when the wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas. Overall, for each kilowatt-hour of heat or electricity produced, using wood initially is likely to add two to three times as much carbon to the air as fossil fuels.
Political decisions taken in the coming months will have great consequences for the world’s forests. If the world supplied just an additional 2% of its energy from wood, it would need to double its commercial wood harvests. There is good evidence that increased bioenergy in Europe has already led to greatly increased harvesting of European forests.
To avoid these harms, governments must end subsidies and other incentives that exist for the burning of wood from forests. The EU needs to stop treating the burning of wood as carbon neutral in its Renewable Energy Directive and in its emissions trading system.
We very much hope our message is heeded. Trees and forests are worth much more to humanity alive than dead. This is what the science says.
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele is a professor at the Université catholique de Louvain, Earth and Life Institute (ELI), Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research (TECLIM) and former Vice-Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
To read the letter from over 500 scientists, in full (with signatories) click here.