Should forestry products including wood and biofuels continue to play a vital role as the leading source of renewable energy as the European Union's accelerates its plans to counter climate change?
That question is at the heart of a fierce debate about new mandatory renewable energy targets planned for the bloc. The changes due in July will be part of one of the largest en masse legislative overhauls in the EU's history.
An extension of the EU Green Deal, the package of new laws - titled "Fit for 55'' – will be designed to ensure the bloc achieves a 55 percent carbon reduction by 2030 and a net-zero level by 2050. Revisions to land use, biofuel production, biodiversity protection, sustainable finance, emissions trading among others hinge on the outcome of the dispute about the role of wood and forestry management.
Diametrically different viewpoints on the role of wood – or biomass as its multitude of primary and secondary products are called – have turned normal allies into adversaries. Sweden and Finland, carbon tax pioneers that have helped champion the battle against global warming ever since the the United Nations framework climate treaty was signed in 1992 are now in the cross-hairs of environmental non governmental organizations (NGOs).
The origins of this dispute, where existential arguments collide, stem from the mandatory renewable energy targets established in the 2009 European Renewable Energy Directive (RED). Burning wood was approved to meet the overall 30 percent target for 2020 and reaffirmed in changes to the law in 2018. The original targets were achieved. And wood, benefiting from subsidies allowed by EU state aid rules, exceeds other energy sources including wind and solar power.
Three years ago the RED target was raised to 32 percent. Included in the changes was a set of sustainability criteria for forestry management designed to promote energy efficiency and conservation. Although EU member states are only now implementing the RED II, including the new sustainability criteria, a new version - REDD III – due in July is expected to increase the level to as much as 40 percent.
A key policy question European Commission experts drawing up the proposal are grappling with concern whether or not wood and the forest industry circular economy has a neutral if not negative carbon footprint. The illusive answer revolves around factors including a forest's capacity to absorb carbon, inexact life-cycle analysis science, wood's net "substitution'' benefits from replacing more polluting building materials such as steel and concrete as well as bioenergy fuel production for the auto and aviation sector.
Further complicating this calculus are new flora and fauna conservation parameters designed to restore and protect biodiversity that will be linked for the first time to the RED legislation.
Nearly 100 different environment groups including Greenpeace, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Forest Defenders Alliance - with support from the European Green Party and some EU member states - insist the Commission must propose to strengthen the RED sustainability criteria and restrict the use of all cut timber as a renewable energy.
They insist the changes are needed because the forest industry, including wood, paper and bioenergy production, has a carbon footprint as bad if not worse than burning fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. In addition, the green campaigners say the RED has dramatically accelerated the loss of old growth forests and biodiversity.
Greta Thunberg not withstanding, the Swedish and Finnish governments, home of the EU's largest forest reserves and where the forest industry is a vital source of tax revenue and a rural community lifeline, insist the environmental groups fail to appreciate how innovation has made forestry management and product production in their countries a showcase circular economy. The NGO demands, they insist, will impose a straitjacket that would not only harm the economy and living standards but unnecessarily undermine efforts to tackle the climate crisis.
The pitched battle between the green groups and the Nordic countries, whose political coalition governments include Social Democrats and the Green Party, is being fought on a number of fronts. Along with the RED is the decision whether the forest industry should qualify for long-term financial investment as part of new EU sustainable finance rules imposed on banks and other financial service groups.
The European Commission, after intense lobbying from Sweden and Finland, reversed in April a preliminary expert group opinion that determined the forestry industry was not worthy of long-term investment needed to stop global warming. That decision infuriated NGOs. WWF quit the expert group. The NGOs are now pressuring the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament to reject the European Commission's implementing decision.
Thirty years ago I took up residence in Stockholm as a foreign correspondent. The story of how Sweden and other Nordic countries in the 20th century turned the forests into a monoculture tree factory to produce paper and pulp while simultaneously destroying land biodiversity and choking the Baltic Sea into a dead zone was one I witnessed and wrote about many times. But the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization studies and various independent certification groups such as the Forestry Stewardship Council, which have the support of some NGOs, insist those the dark days are history and forestry management in the Nordic countries is now a role model.
The production of wood pellet production, a booming multi-billion export and import industry is a pertinent case study when it comes to the divisions over forestry carbon footprint analysis and the sector's long-term sustainability. The small wood kernels, burned in large and small electrical power plants as well as for heat in residential homes, currently meet EU renewable fuel criteria. They play a major role in helping some EU member states meet their mandatory renewable energy targets.
Climate activists insist, among other things, the forests felled to produce the pellets releases carbon trapped in the soil and logging outpaces tree regeneration needed to absorb carbon emissions. And the air pollution from burning the pellets is a health hazard. However, the forest industry insists wood pellet production, made from sawdust, recycled wood and other residues, burned in co-generating power stations that produce heat and electricity, are part of a highly efficient circular economy and provide a financial incentive to manage against tree disease, forest fires and other ecosystem problems.
Another case study concerns bionergy. This includes burning biomass - primarily wood scraps left over from logging - in a complex refinery process to produce, among others things, jet fuel, wood composites and polymers. SCA AB, Sweden's largest paper and pulp producer and the largest private forest owner in the country, has big plans to construct a bio-refinery it says will produce enough biofuel to power annual domestic air travel in the country.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency, an offshoot of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, insists bio-refineries are part of a virtual circular economy and will play a key role on the road to net zero carbon emissions. Not so, according to the Forest Defenders Alliance.
"In reality burning wood (for bio-refineries) emits more carbon pollution than burning coal and re-growing trees to offset these emissions takes decades to centuries – time we do not have in the race to offset climate change,'' the group said.
Besides the upcoming EU legislation the outcome of the role of wood and the overall forestry management debate will reverberate far beyond the EU shores, especially as many countries scramble to meet Paris Climate treaty goals and biodiversity protection goals. It is central to trade complaints filed against the EU in the World Trade Organization by Indonesia and Malaysia palm tree products as well as Amazon forest management will derail the EU-MERCOSUR free trade agreement.
"More than a billion people worldwide depend on forests for subsistence and livelihoods,'' said Kenichi Shono, a forestry expert with the Rome-based United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, told me when contacted him for a broad perspective on the overall sustainable forestry management debate. He added that "wood is a useful, valuable and renewable resource.''
As for "overarching'' sustainable forestry management goals Shono said all countries need to "optimize the combination of values and benefits that forests provide.'' These, he said, include "timber, biodiversity, watershed regulation, soil protection, climate change mitigation and adaption, disaster risk mitigation, cultural services, aesthetics, non-wood forest products and health benefits.''
Amid all of those factors is there a happy medium and sustainable formula that will bridge the gap the NGOs and the Nordics on forestry management? Don't count on one anytime soon.