Belgian scientist calls on MEPs to amend renewable energy directive

An eminent Belgian scientist, Prof Jean-Pascal Van Ypersele, is leading calls to amend the present EU renewable energy directive to “avoid expansive harm to the world’s forests and the acceleration of climate change.”


The demand comes as MEPs are set to vote on the European parliament’s position for the revision of the directive. This sets out targets for renewable energy for 2030 and the criteria for bioenergy.

A group of scientists were in the European parliament last Wednesday, January 10, to press members ahead of the vote during the Strasbourg plenary next week.

They handed  MEPs a letter that states: “The flaw in the directive lies in provisions that would let countries, power plants and factories claim credit toward renewable energy targets for deliberately cutting down trees to burn them for energy.”

The move comes with lobby groups fighting against binding targets for the expansion of renewable energy and clear rules for sustainable biofuels.

Palm oil used for the production of biofuels damages the climate and competes with food production, while trees are still being burned in coal-fired power plants to produce energy.” explained Van Ypersele, added: “The solution should be to restrict the forest biomass eligible under the directive to residues and wastes.” he concluded.

He said that a “little known” aspect of the Paris climate change agreement was  the pledge to achieve zero net emissions globally after 2050.

He added: “This is going to be a big challenge, not least as the consequences of Co2 emissions are very long lasting. For example,  it is estimated that that 15 to 40 per cent of the Co2 we emit today will still be in the atmosphere in hundreds of years.”

Two Greens MEPs, Claude Turmes and Bas Eickhout, also voiced concern about the future for renewables and ending harmful biofuels.

Eickhout, also speaking at the briefing, said, “This file is very politically sensitive, not least for the bio fuel industry, and there is still a chance the vote next week will be postponed. It will be nonsense if that happen because we cannot continue to pretend that burning whole trees in old coal power plants is good for the climate. However, when the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) voted on the bioenergy criteria on 28 November, it opted for a very weak position. The plenary vote is our chance to set things straight.”

The delegation also included scientists Wolfgang Cramer, director of Research at the Institut Méditerranéen de Biodiversité et d’ Ecologie marine et continentale in Aix-en-Provence (France) and a leading author of many IPCC reports; Tim Searchinger, a research fellow at Princeton University and author of scientific studies on bionic energy and Bjart Holtsmark, an economist at the Norwegian Statistical Office.

Full letter

 For decades, European producers of paper and timber products have generated electricity and heat as beneficial by-products using wood wastes and limited forest residues. Since most of these waste materials would decompose and release carbon dioxide within a few years, using them to displace fossil fuels can reduce net carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere in a few years as well.

By contrast, cutting down trees for bioenergy releases carbon that would otherwise stay locked up in forests, and diverting wood otherwise used for wood products will cause more cutting elsewhere to replace them.

Even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries – as many studies have shown – even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas. The reasons are fundamental and occur regardless of whether forest management is “sustainable.” Burning wood is inefficient and therefore emits far more carbon than burning fossil fuels for each kilowatt hour of electricity produced. Harvesting wood also properly leaves some biomass behind to protect soils, such as roots and small branches, which decompose and emit carbon. The result is a large “carbon debt.”

Re-growing trees and displacement of fossil fuels may eventually pay off this “carbon debt’ but only over long periods. Overall, allowing the harvest and burning of wood under the directive will transform large reductions otherwise achieved through solar and wind into large increases in carbon in the atmosphere by 2050.

Time matters.

Placing an additional carbon load in the atmosphere for decades means permanent damages due to more rapid melting of glaciers and thawing of permafrost, and more packing of heat and acidity into the world’s oceans. At a critical moment when countries need to be “buying time” against climate change, this approach amounts to “selling” the world’s limited time to combat it.

The adverse implications not just for carbon but for global forests and biodiversity are also large. More than 100% of Europe’s annual harvest of wood would be needed to supply just one third of the expanded renewable energy directive. Because demand for wood and paper will remain, the result will be increased degradation of forests around the world. The example Europe would set for other countries would be even more dangerous. Europe has been properly encouraging countries such as Indonesia and Brazil to protect their forests, but the message of this directive is “cut your forests so long as someone burns them for energy.

Once countries invest in such efforts, fixing the error may become impossible. If the world moves to supply just an additional 3% of global energy with wood, it must double its commercial cuttings of the world’s forests.

By 1850, the use of wood for bioenergy helped drive the near deforestation of western Europe even when Europeans consumed far less energy than they do today. Although coal helped to save the forests of Europe, the solution to replacing coal is not to go back to burning forests, but instead to replace fossil fuels with low carbon sources, such as solar and wind.

We urge European legislators to amend the present directive to restrict eligible forest biomass to appropriately defined residues and wastes because the fates of much of the world’s forests and the climate are literally at stake.”