Wood-based bioenergy production in Europe causing indiscriminate felling of forests

Rampant logging of whole trees is taking place in protected forests to source wood products for bioenergy plants

By DTE Staff
Published: Monday 28 November 2016
There’s no law to make it obligatory for European bioenergy plants to prove that their wood products are sustainably sourced. Credit: David J/ Flicker
There’s no law to make it obligatory for European bioenergy plants to prove that their wood products are sustainably sourced. Credit: David J/ Flicker There’s no law to make it obligatory for European bioenergy plants to prove that their wood products are sustainably sourced. Credit: David J/ Flicker

Up to 65 per cent of Europe’s renewable output comes from bioenergy rather than wind and solar power. But according to an investigation by Birdlife—a collaborative entity on nature conservation—the protected forests across Europe are being felled indiscriminately to meet the renewable energy targets. The continent’s carbon sink is reported to decline by about 100 million tonnes between 2020 and 2030, mainly due to logging for bioenergy.

The investigation has revealed how rampant logging of whole trees is taking place in conservation zones to source wood products for bioenergy plants. The logging continues to meet the growing need for bioenergy fuel although it is supposed to be harvested from residue such as forest waste. Currently, there’s no law to make it obligatory for European bioenergy plants to prove that their wood products have been sustainably sourced.

According to the State of Europe’s Forests 2015 report, the forests in the continent are one of the main sources of roundwood in the world and the demand for woodfuel is increasing at a high rate in European countries. In Slovakia, for example, the drive to reach the EU’s renewable energy targets has seen a 72 per cent increase in the use of wood for bioenergy since 2007.

A study by Think Forests–Center for International Forestry Research observed that the demand for forest biomass would increase by 73 per cent by 2020 to meet the EU’s climate and energy targets. This has triggered fears over possible shortage of forest biomass. Consequently, it could lead to fierce competition over woody biomass and loss of forest biodiversity.

Destruction of carbon sink

Large-scale demand from power plants and lack of enough forest residues drive the felling of forests for bioenergy. However, logging of trees releases stored carbon into the atmosphere and affects the carbon sink. While the power to absorb harmful emissions wanes, the efforts to compensate for the felled trees take 50 years or more.

A wood plant in Vyborg (north-west Russia), for instance, produces 800,000 tonnes of wood pellets each year from felled trees in forests around Leningrad and Pskov Oblasts. Its wood products meet demand in Denmark, Italy, Finland and Sweden. “The European commission should phase out all land-based biofuels by 2030 and devote greater efforts to promoting sustainable renewables such as solar, wind, geothermal and tidal,” said Jori Sihvonen, the biofuels officer at Transport and Environment who co-authored the report by Birdlife.

How sustainable is forest management in the EU?

There are entities and individuals who deny these excesses. According to the Confederation of European Forest Owners (CEPF), the forests in the continent are managed “with the highest sustainability standards in the world” and it needs to be recognised and promoted. The CEPF is of the view that fixing criteria for solid biomass would hamper management of forests.

Currently, it is the EU member states that determine the national Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) policy. Although they have adopted the FOREST EUROPE voluntary criteria and indicators, those guidelines lack target levels or any legality. There are huge disparities in how forests are managed across Europe owing to different understandings and traditions of SFM among member states and lack of coherence between forest and land-use policies.

Forest cover in Europe

Europe’s forests cover an area of 215 million ha, 33 per cent of total land area. Other wooded lands cover about 36 million ha. While Northern Europe is the most forested region in the continent (53 per cent), South-East Europe is the least forested region (23 per cent). Around 80 per cent of the total forest area in Europe is available for wood supply.

Making bioenergy sustainable

As the surge in demand for biomass puts pressure on European forests, there’s a need to discuss how sustainably they are managed. Meanwhile, the European Commission will propose a new bioenergy sustainability policy for the use of biomass for heating, electricity and transport by the end of 2016.  Comprehensive safeguards need to be introduced to ensure that bioenergy is sustainable and avoids negative consequences on biodiversity, soil, water, land use and people.

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