Why burning forests for Energy may not be a good idea. Flaws in the revised EU renewable energy Directive

The European Union is about to release a revised version of the Directive on renewable energy. The directive aims at doubling the current production of renewable energy by 2030, i.e. the provision of solar, wind, hydroelectric and bioenergy energy. Renewable is ‘good’, so it seems we are undertaking a new step towards sustainability and a green future- All really noble, but are we sure we are doing the right thing?

Depends. The current draft of the directive is actually pretty controversial. The fact is that burning wood for energy is a terribly inefficient process, and the actual benefit for climate are questionable and ‘overrated’ at the least. Not to mention that to to supply even one third of the additional renewable energy likely required by 2030, Europe would need to burn an amount of wood greater than its total harvest today. We are talking about huge quantities, and it is arguable that this may ever be sustainable.This would translate into an incredible (additional) pressure on EU forest ecosystems, and the wildlife contained therein. I am afraid the few last stretches of primary forest may represent no exception, especially given that we already see some of the dramatic consequences of the increasing wood price driven by EU’s bioenergy hunger. Widespread unsustainable (and partially illegal) logging in Romanian virgin forests. Cuttings in Slovakian national parks. The primeval forest Bialowietza (a UNESCO heritage site) under siege. And I am not even mentioning here the possible spillover to other, threatened forests in the world that may be put under increasing pressure from EU need of wood.

The good news, we are still on time for reverting this. 784 scientists (at the time I write) signed an appeal to the EU Parliament to amend the proposed revision to restrict the support provided by the Directive only to the production of energy from forest biomass derived from wood waste and (limited) forest residues.

The letter is below. Please, read it and share it, if you agree with us. Now it is time to give it broad visibility and put pressure on the legislators to avoid a big mistake that may have decadal consequences on our forests and their biodiversity, with only limited (if any!) advantages for mitigating climate change. For those who want to learn more, I also recommend the article EU must not burn the world’s forests for ‘renewable’ energy’, published on The Guardian as well as this short movie.


To Members of the European Parliament,As the European Parliament commendably moves to expand the renewable energy directive, we strongly urge members of Parliament to amend the present directive to avoid expansive harm to the world’s forests and the acceleration of climate change. The flaw in the directive lies in provisions that would let countries, power plants and factories claim credit toward renewable energy targets for deliberately cutting down trees to burn them for energy. The solution should be to restrict the forest biomass eligible under the directive to residues and wastes.

For decades, European producers of paper and timber products have generated electricity and heat as beneficial by-products using wood wastes and limited forest residues. Since most of these waste materials would decompose and release carbon dioxide within a few years, using them to displace fossil fuels can reduce net carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere in a few years as well. By contrast, cutting down trees for bioenergy releases carbon that would otherwise stay locked up in forests, and diverting wood otherwise used for wood products will cause more cutting elsewhere to replace them.

Even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries – as many studies have shown – even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas. The reasons are fundamental and occur regardless of whether forest management is “sustainable.” Burning wood is inefficient and therefore emits far more carbon than burning fossil fuels for each kilowatt hour of electricity produced. Harvesting wood also properly leaves some biomass behind to protect soils, such as roots and small branches, which decompose and emit carbon. The result is a large “carbon debt.” Re-growing trees and displacement of fossil fuels may eventually pay off this “carbon debt’ but only over long periods. Overall, allowing the harvest and burning of wood under the directive will transform large reductions otherwise achieved through solar and wind into large increases in carbon in the atmosphere by 2050.

Time matters. Placing an additional carbon load in the atmosphere for decades means permanent damages due to more rapid melting of glaciers and thawing of permafrost, and more packing of heat and acidity into the world’s oceans. At a critical moment when countries need to be “buying time” against climate change, this approach amounts to “selling” the world’s limited time to combat climate change.

The adverse implications not just for carbon but for global forests and biodiversity are also large. More than 100% of Europe’s annual harvest of wood would be needed to supply just one third of the expanded renewable energy directive. Because demand for wood and paper will remain, the result will be increased degradation of forests around the world. The example Europe would set for other countries would be even more dangerous. Europe has been properly encouraging countries such as Indonesia and Brazil to protect their forests, but the message of this directive is “cut your forests so long as someone burns them for energy.” Once countries invest in such efforts, fixing the error may become impossible. If the world moves to supply just an additional 3% of global energy with wood, it must double its commercial cuttings of the world’s forests.

By 1850, the use of wood for bioenergy helped drive the near deforestation of western Europe even when Europeans consumed far less energy than they do today. Although coal helped to save the forests of Europe, the solution to replacing coal is not to go back to burning forests, but instead to replace fossil fuels with low carbon sources, such as solar and wind. We urge European legislators to amend the present directive to restrict eligible forest biomass to appropriately defined residues and wastes because the fate of much of the world’s forests and the climate are literally at stake.

Initial signatories:
𝗝𝗼𝗵𝗻 𝗕𝗲𝗱𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴𝘁𝗼𝗻, Professor, Oxford Martin School, former Chief Scientist to the government of the United Kingdom
𝗦𝘁𝗲𝘃𝗲𝗻 𝗕𝗲𝗿𝗿𝘆, Professor, Yale University, former Chairman, Department of Economics, fellow American Academy of Arts and Sciences, winner of the Frisch Medal of the Econometric Society.
𝗞𝗲𝗻 𝗖𝗮𝗹𝗱𝗲𝗶𝗿𝗮, Professor, Stanford University and Carnegie Institution for Science, Coordinating lead author or lead author of multiple IPCC reports.
𝗪𝗼𝗹𝗳𝗴𝗮𝗻𝗴 𝗖𝗿𝗮𝗺𝗲𝗿, Research Director, CNRS, Mediterranean Institute of marine and terrestrial Biodiversity and Ecology, Aix-en-Provence, member Académie d’Agriculture de France France, Coordinating lead author and lead author of multiple IPCC reports,
𝗙𝗲𝗹𝗶𝘅 𝗖𝗿𝗲𝘂𝘁𝘇𝗶𝗴, Chair Sustainability Economics of Human Settlement at Technische Universität Berlin, Leader, leader Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Lead author of IPCC V Assessment Report and coordinator of appendix on bioenergy.
𝗣𝗵𝗶𝗹 𝗗𝘂𝗳𝗳𝘆, President, Woods Hole Research Center, former Senior Advisor White Office of Science and Technology Policy, Contributing author of multiple IPCC reports
𝗗𝗮𝗻 𝗞𝗮𝗺𝗺𝗲𝗻, Professor University of California at Berkeley, Director Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, Coordinating lead author or lead author of multiple IPCC reports.
𝗘𝗿𝗶𝗰 𝗟𝗮𝗺𝗯𝗶𝗻, Professor Université catholique de Louvain and Stanford University, member European and U.S. Academies of Science, 2014 laureate of Volvo Environment Prize
𝗦𝗶𝗺𝗼𝗻 𝗟𝗲𝘃𝗶𝗻, Professor Princeton University, Recipient, U.S. National Medal of Science, member U.S. National Academy of Sciences
𝗪𝗼𝗹𝗳𝗴𝗮𝗻𝗴 𝗟𝘂𝗰𝗵𝘁, Professor Humboldt University and Co-Chair of Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, lead author of multiple IPCC reports
𝗚𝗲𝗼𝗿𝗴𝗶𝗻𝗮 𝗠𝗮𝗰𝗲 𝗙𝗥𝗦, Professor, University College London, Lead author IPCC report and Winner International Cosmos Prize
𝗪𝗶𝗹𝗹𝗶𝗮𝗺 𝗠𝗼𝗼𝗺𝗮𝘄, Emeritus Professor, Tufts University, Coordinating lead author or lead author of multiple IPCC reports
𝗣𝗲𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝗥𝗮𝘃𝗲𝗻, Director Emeritus Missouri Botanical Society, Recipient U.S. National Medal of Science and former President of American Association for Advancement of Science
𝗧𝗶𝗺 𝗦𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗰𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗴𝗲𝗿, Research Scholar, Princeton University and Senior Fellow, World Resources Institute
𝗡𝗶𝗹𝘀 𝗖𝗵𝗿. 𝗦𝘁𝗲𝗻𝘀𝗲𝘁𝗵, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, University of Oslo, Past president of The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, member Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters, The National Academy of Science (Washington), French Academy of Sciences, and Academia Europaea
𝗝𝗲𝗮𝗻 𝗣𝗮𝘀𝗰𝗮𝗹 𝘃𝗮𝗻 𝗬𝗽𝗲𝗿𝘀𝗲𝗹𝗲, Professor, Université catholique de Louvain, Former IPCC Vice-chair (2008- 2015), member of the Royal Academy of Belgium, lead author or review editor of multiple IPCC reports