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ENGOs welcome Parliament’s position on energy efficiency and governance but slam “bad bioenergy”

With biomass already the largest renewable in the EU along with the heated debates on forest-derived biomass and the use of palm oil, it is no surprise that environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs) have deplored the biomass sustainability outcome of European Parliament vote on January 17. However, aside from the dramatic "burning whole trees" rhetoric, ENGOs also welcome points they see as improvements to the European Commission's original proposal.

Advocating on the EU level for a “more sustainable future for people and planet”, the European Policy Office of World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF EPO) noted the “dose of ambition” the European Parliament added to the European Commission’s Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) proposal and the support for a 2050 climate goal for the EU. The latter sending a message to investors and the rest of the world that “the EU is taking the Paris Agreement seriously and wants to make the climate great again”.

Wood pellets and car with a full tank of E85 on a driveway in Sweden – some view this as two instances of potentially “bad bioenergy” and “disastrous” EU bioenergy policy that MEPs voted January 17 to continue backing.

Although WWF EPO wanted to see a 40 percent EED target, this along with an improved energy savings rule allowing the possibility of counting transport energy use was welcomed by the organization.

MEPs have shown that high ambition is both possible and crucial. Reducing energy use, and setting a goal of net zero emissions are key to our Paris Agreement commitments. The European Parliament must now hold firm to its positions in the upcoming negotiations with the EU Council. Sadly, this ambition was not echoed at the renewables vote. The outcome there was a win for the fossil fuel and biomass industries, and a slap in the face for citizens, the climate and forests, said Imke Lübbeke, Head of Climate and Energy at WWF EPO.

Greenpeace EU, an independent global campaigning organisation that “acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace” also welcomed MEPs ambition to boost renewables but noted that the Parliament backed the continued use of “bad bioenergy” in the EU that would allow member states to “burn whole trees” to meet their renewable energy target.

The organisation also noted that MEPs had strengthened rules supporting people producing renewable energy at home or through joining a cooperative. This includes rules that would make self-consumed electricity free from punitive charges, levies and taxes, citing Spain’s “solar tax” as an example.

The Parliament has rightly recognised that the EU must boost renewables to meet its climate commitments, but should have kept the focus on real solutions, not bad bioenergy. Unlike governments across Europe that are blocking communities from phasing out dangerous coal and nuclear in favour of renewables, the Parliament strongly backs citizens’ rights to harvest and sell their own energy from sun and wind, said Sebastian Mang, Energy Policy Adviser at Greenpeace EU.

Although the 35 percent renewable energy target was an improvement on the Commission’s 27 percent proposal, WWF EPO also pointed out that the 10 percent ‘flexibility’, the target could end up being 31.5 percent. Most damagingly, according to WWF EPO, is that MEPs have “ignored the warnings” from scientists and calls from NGOs and citizens, to stop “subsidising the burning of tree trunks and stumps for energy.”

This shocking decision is likely to lead to more and more forests being burned in the name of fighting climate change. It flies in the face of science, and poses a serious threat to our climate goals. Investors should be aware that further investment in biomass plants is high risk, and their money is better spent on wind and solar, commented Alex Mason, Senior Policy Officer at WWF European Policy Office.

Echoing the same sentiments, FERN, an organisations that aims to achieve “greater environmental and social justice, focusing on forests and forest peoples’ rights in the policies and practices of the EU”, said that European Parliament had failed to help the climate by reversing the EU’s “disastrous bioenergy policy” though it noted that the requirement to only burn biomass in the more efficient energy installations was maintained.

According to FERN, the “largescale” use of biomass increases “biomass imports and encourages the burning of whole trees” which has a “detrimental impact” on the world’s forests and the climate.

MEPs have overlooked the scientific consensus that increasing reliance on wood for so-called renewable energy will harm forests and increase emissions. The Parliament’s ambition to increase renewable energy is laudable, but without meaningful sustainability criteria on burning wood, the bioenergy policy could easily increase emissions. With this vote, the EU is sending the perverse message to other countries considering their renewable energy policy that cutting down trees and burning them should be encouraged, It is now up to EU Member States to stop new conversions of coal installations to biomass, said Linde Zuidema, Bioenergy Campaigner at FERN.

BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, one of the six regional secretariats that make up BirdLife International, a global Partnership of autonomous, national non-governmental conservation organisations whose mission is “to conserve wild birds, their habitats and global biodiversity” was more dramatic in its rhetoric.

According to BirdLife Europe, energy from biomass should be limited to waste and residues, not “whole trees, forests and food” as “razing whole forests to the ground to feed our energy use releases vastly increased carbon into our atmosphere” and “converting land into biofuel plantations means wiping out nature and evicting local communities” both of which are “a crime when well-located wind and solar power offer viable alternatives.”

The vote will massively increase exploitation of forests inside and outside the EU, harming habitats and wildlife, while potentially increasing emissions instead of saving them. This completely disregards overwhelming scientific evidence and appeals from hundreds of scientists just before the vote on the harmful climate impacts of burning trees for energy, said Matt Williams, BirdLife Europe Policy Officer.

On biofuels, European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E), an organisation that aims to promote, at EU and global level, a “transport policy based on the principles of sustainable development” welcomed the decision to cap the use of food-based biofuels at current levels but says it regrets that MEPs missed the opportunity to support a “more ambitious” phase out.

According to Laura Buffet, Clean Fuels Manager at T&E, the vote sends a “clear message” to the biofuels industry that growth can only come from sustainable advanced fuels such as waste-based biofuels, not from food crops.

This compromise redirects investments into the fuels of the future and eliminates palm oil biodiesel, the highest emitting biofuel. Unfortunately, the deal does little to clean up and phase out existing EU crop biofuels which will continue to receive support until 2030, she said.

According to T&E, the new definition and list of advanced biofuels leave the “door open” to unsustainable feedstocks saying that the “rules need to be tightened to ensure only truly sustainable advanced feedstocks are incentivised” under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED).

This vote puts the EU fuels policy on a cleaner track, but it still leaves the door open to some unsustainable second-generation biofuels. We urge the European Commission and EU governments to tighten the definition and the list of advanced biofuels so as to only promote truly sustainable biofuels and avoid the same mistakes of the past, said Buffet.

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