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Lawsuit seeks to remove forest biomass from EU's renewable energy directive

On March 4, 2019, a landmark lawsuit was filed against the European Union (EU) with plaintiffs from five Member States – Romania, Ireland, Slovakia, France and Estonia along with the United States (US) charging that the EU’s 2018 Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) will devastate forests and increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by promoting burning forest biomass as renewable and carbon neutral.

An ineligible renewable fuel? A group of NGO’s from five EU countries and the United States have filed a lawsuit with the European General Court in Luxembourg against the European Union (EU) charging that the EU’s 2018 Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) will devastate forests and increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by promoting burning forest wood as renewable and carbon neutral.

The legal case, which was filed in the European General Court in Luxembourg, cites scientific evidence that wood-burning power plants pump more carbon into the atmosphere per unit of energy than coal-fired plants. However, EU policy does not count the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning biomass fuels for heat or energy.

The EU’s policy relies on the false and reckless assumption that burning forest wood is carbon neutral. However, scientists from around the world, including the EU’s own science advisors, warned that burning forest wood actually increases emissions relative to fossil fuels, said Dr Mary S. Booth, Director of the US-based Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) and lead science advisor on the case.

The plaintiffs are asking the Court to annul the forest biomass provisions of the RED II in order to render forest wood, and its energy derivatives such as wood pellets, ineligible for meeting EU Member State renewable energy targets and subsidies.

The lawsuit we are filing today alleges the EU’s policy fails to comply with nearly every one of the principles for environmental policy that are laid out in the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU, including that policy should be based on science, address climate change, and embrace the principle that polluters pay. It’s hard to imagine a more counter-productive policy than burning forests for fuel, said Raul Cazan from 2Celsius in Romania, one of the NGO plaintiffs.

In accordance with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommendations for maintaining a livable climate, the European Commission has called for a climate-neutral Europe by 2050, requiring that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions be balanced by uptake into carbon sinks by that point, primarily forests.

Under the RED II, the EU is required to generate at least 32 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, to help reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Biomass energy is a large and growing part of the EU’s renewable energy mix. In 2016, nearly half the renewable energy produced in the EU came from woody biomass fuels, and demand is expected to increase with RED II.

A forest harvest site in Sweden. According to the plaintiffs, subsidies (in the EU) for forest biomass are increasing demand and driving increased logging of forests in Europe and North America.

Plaintiffs from Estonia, France, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, and the US are bringing the case based on the “harms from logging and forest biomass burning they have already suffered, and anticipation of future impacts as financial support for bioenergy continues to soar.”

We’re in a climate emergency that the EU is exacerbating by treating forests, virtually our only carbon sink, as fuel. This favoured treatment is expanding forest cutting, which in turn is impacting peoples’ property, rights, and livelihoods. It’s vital that people affected by this damaging policy are allowed to come before the EU court to challenge it said Peter Lockley, legal counsel for the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs represent areas that are said to have been “particularly hard hit”, such as the US Southeast, Estonia, and the Carpathian Mountain forests in eastern Europe, where some of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests are being intensively logged.

The revamp of the Renewable Energy Directive was the EU’s chance to deal with some of the most egregious problems associated with biomass bioenergy, such as increasing forest harvests and burning whole trees and stumps. On this, they largely failed, so it is now up to citizens to take the EU to court and get this disastrous decision turned around, said Hannah Mowat, campaigns coordinator at Fern, a Brussels-based NGO working on forests and rights.

The case argues that not only are the uncounted CO2 emissions from biomass burning undermining efforts to address climate change, but subsidies for biomass are increasing demand and driving increased logging of forests in Europe and North America.

The EU government has conveniently ignored the impact that burning wood has on the global climate and more specifically on the forests and communities of the Southern United States. We do not have time for false solutions that are making things worse, we need the EU to stop burning our forests and invest in protecting forests around the world as our best defense against a changing climate said Adam Colette of Dogwood Alliance, who is a witness for the case.

In addition to PFPI, the Center for Climate Integrity (US) and Fern (EU) have provided support and assistance to the case and to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Leigh Day, Matrix Chambers, and 11KBW, all with offices based in London, UK.

Six witnesses provided testimony, including Booth, Colette, and DellaSala, quoted above, and Gabriel Paun, President of Agent Green in Romania; Timothy Searchinger, Research Scholar at Princeton University; and Jeff Turner, Blackwater Nottoway RiverGuardian in Virginia, US.

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