EU’s biofuels addiction is destroying global forests in the name of combatting climate change


Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Rianne Veen
Rianne Veen

EU Environment & Disaster Management Consultant and Fellow at Greenfaith

At the Paris biodiversity summit in January, the European Union nobly reiterated its promise to plant 3bn trees by 2030 and over 50 countries pledged to protect 30% of their land and seas. However, this effort to combat deforestation may come too late for Baltic and Scandinavian forests, which have fallen victim to Europe’s appetite for biofuels.

Since 2016, deforestation has risen by 49% in Baltic and Scandinavian countries. This increase is traceable to the EU’s first renewable energy directive in 2009, which forced member states to supply 20% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. This directive, which was updated in 2018 to include a 32% target by 2030, sparked a demand for biofuel made from biomass – organic matter or animal waste.

In particular, wood pellets derived from trees were classed as a carbon-neutral alternative to coal, and certain countries accelerated deforestation to meet a new European demand. Currently, biomass contributes to 60% of the EU’s renewable energy supply, more than wind and solar energy combined.

Forests are a crucial defence to climate change and naturally absorb carbon dioxide while providing vital habitats for wildlife. These ‘carbon sinks’ absorb about 10% of the EU’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions and theoretically, if replanted, could be carbon-neutral. However, trees take decades to grow and release more carbon dioxide than oil, gas or coal when burned. So, while the EU originally classed wood pellets as carbon-neutral, it has in fact caused a carbon debt. Razed ancient forests have been replaced by industrial tree plantations. Distressingly, a monoculture of tree species holds 30 to 50 percent less carbon than natural forests.

Due to widespread lobbying on part of commercial exporters, these commercial tree plantations are often grown as even-aged monocultures – non-native, fast-growing conifers, which are cut down before they have offset emissions from their fallen precursors. For example, over half of new tree growths in Britain are harvested within 15 years and up to a quarter of them are burned, releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The loss of biodiversity is disturbing

Classifying biomass as a renewable energy contributed to a devastating rise in European deforestation, especially in Baltic and Scandinavian countries. As detailed in a recent report by Nature Research, biomass loss increased 69% across Europe between 2016 and 2018, with large losses occurring in the Nordic and Baltic regions. In the past five years, the rate of deforestation in Estonia has risen 85% – a surge linked to a 25% decrease in bird populations. In a country that regards nature as sacred, this destruction is sacrilege.

The loss of biodiversity is disturbing and highlights the hypocritical tendency of the EU to enforce illogical climate policies which do more harm than good, both within and outside of the EU bloc.

For example, the EU banned the use of palm oil as a biofuel due to its links to deforestation. This ban impacted 42 countries, mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia, but particularly effected Malaysia and Indonesia, which produce 85% of the global supply.

However, replacing palm oil, which is found in almost 50% of packaged products, with alternative vegetable oils – like soybean, sunflower, rapeseed and coconut – requires more fertiliser and land. Soy in particular requires almost nine times the amount of land to yield the same amount of oil. Further, the boycott of palm oil unfairly impacts smallholder farmers who rely on palm oil exports to survive and shifts demand to countries like China where palm oil is subject to less regulation.

This not only drives further deforestation but it ignores sustainable alternatives, like hemp oil, and turns a blind eye to progress.

The EU risks losing its moral high ground if it keeps using climate change to justify double standards and hypocrisy

Malaysia has certified almost 90% of its palm oil plantations under the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) scheme, which enforces regulations on labour, biodiversity and deforestation. Though far from perfect, Malaysia has achieved a record decline in the rate of deforestation over the last three years.

There is a clear mismatch between the EU’s rhetoric and action on deforestation. In the name of climate change, the EU is effectively propping up its own economy while contributing to mass deforestation and habitat loss, domestically and abroad. This is not a sustainable solution.

The EU risks losing its moral high ground if it keeps using climate change to justify double standards and hypocrisy. The need for a holistic strategy which considers both domestic and foreign policy has never been greater. Combatting climate change is necessary and laudable, but it cannot mean exacerbating another global disaster.

Before the Commission meets in June to discuss its future climate strategy, I urge them to consider this proposition: if the EU wants to lead the world on climate policies or ‘become the world’s first climate-neutral continent’ by 2050, as stated in the Green New Deal, it needs to get its own house in order first.

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