The European Parliament on climate: Blow hot, blow cold
With regard to climate policy, the Parliament seems to have difficulty choosing whether to encourage its constituents or drive us to despair.
On 17 January 2018, the European Parliament voted for language to increase the EU’s carbon sink over the next few decades so as to reach negative emissions by 2050 (i.e., to pull more carbon out of the atmosphere than it puts into it). The vote was on the Regulation for the Governance of the Energy Union, which defines how the EU will set short- and long-term targets to meet its Paris Agreement commitments. This vote increases ambition, and was strongly hailed by NGOs. The Parliament’s decision will now go into “Trilogue” negotiations with the European Commission and Council: NGOs urge all parties to support the positive language when they work to agree a final regulation at some point in 2018.
Nonetheless, on the same day, the normally progressive Parliament threw the climate baby out with the bathwater. During the vote on the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), MEPs ignored the alert raised by almost 800 scientists that burning wood as part of a climate strategy will likely backfire, yielding instead to the intense pressure of forestry and energy sectors, and of Member States (e.g., Finland and Sweden) that rely on intensive forestry to feed expanding bioenergy industries.
With encouragement from the previous RED, forest biomass has become the biggest source of renewable energy. Yet initial emissions from wood burning are greater than from coal, and trees cannot grow back fast enough to compensate. Waste wood and residues carry some potential for reducing emissions, but to make the policy viable it is crucial to prevent the harvesting of living trees for bioenergy; MEPs failed to do this.
Instead they endorsed the Commission’s weak sustainability policy that relies on sustainable forest management (SFM) and LULUCF accounting rules to account for emissions from biomass burning – they even managed to weaken the SFM rules. There was no attempt to deal with the fact that felling a sustainably managed and harvested tree, and then accounting for its emissions, does nothing to reduce those emissions.
This is a missed opportunity. Rather than focus on how forests are managed, the debate must explore what uses of wood help mitigate climate change, and should therefore be encouraged. Decision-makers must halt spending billions of taxpayers’ euros on large-scale, inefficient biomass installations, and stop sending the signal to large, emerging economies that tearing down trees to burn them instead of coal has any benefit for the climate.