August 13, 2015 / 8:25 AM / 4 years ago

Tree loophole casts shadow over EU carbon action

* Commission expected to outline new policy 2016-17

* Campaigners see discrepancy ‘the size of Portugal’

* Big generators say they are behaving sustainably

By Barbara Lewis and Nina Chestney

BRUSSELS/LONDON, Aug 13 (Reuters) - European environment law provides more financial incentives to fell a tree than to plant one, campaigners say.

They warn that EU claims it leads the fight against climate change are based on false data and the United States must not follow suit.

For many nations, wood burning, or biomass, provided a fast, affordable way to meet a European Union goal to get a fifth of all energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Spurred by subsidies, EU nations will meet almost 60 percent of that target from biomass, according to European Commission data.

But as forests, which absorb carbon dioxide, are replanted more slowly than they are burned, not all biomass is sustainable and an assumption that it is carbon neutral can be wildly inaccurate.

“The best role our forests play in fighting climate change is when they are standing so that they can store and sequester carbon,” Scot Quaranda, a director at the U.S.-based Dogwood Alliance said. “Why would we log the very forests that are supposed to save us from climate change to save us from climate change?”

The European Commission, the EU executive, has said there is a problem, but does not expect to deliver its strategy to address it until well after landmark United Nations’ talks in Paris late this year on a global climate deal.

“The European Commission will propose a new renewable energy package in 2016-2017. This will include a new policy for sustainable biomass and biofuels,” an EU official said on condition of anonymity.

Even then, it could take two years of negotiations to finalise law binding on the 28 member states, while the number of uncounted emissions will rise, campaigners say.

They want a cap on biomass use and tougher accounting based on how much carbon is released over a fuel’s lifecycle.

For the purposes of the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), meant to be the main EU weapon against climate change, electricity generated from biomass counts as zero emissions on the basis that every tree chopped down for fuel is replaced.

Campaigners say that even if trees are planted, creating carbon sinks takes decades or even centuries. In some instances burning biomass can be more polluting than coal, especially if fragile environments such as wetlands are disturbed.

The European Environmental Bureau, a non-governmental organisation, published a study in May that estimated the biomass issue means power generators avoid buying carbon certificates equivalent to up to 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or three times Portugal’s annual emissions.

U.S. WOOD PELLETS

A change in the rules could cost the generators dear as the price of ETS permits is predicted to climb above 20 euros per tonne in the next decade from around eight euros now.

So far, Europe is the major market for wood pellets to replace coal in power plants.

Many of them come from the United States, where campaigners are calling on authorities to avoid the mistakes Europe has made as the United States too seeks to make power cleaner, partly by replacing coal with biomass.

Drax, which has converted some of its UK coal plant to biomass, has begun a strategic review of its business, but says its rethink is related to changes to the British subsidy regime rather than any tightening of EU law.

It gets its wood pellets from U.S. producer Enviva.

Drax and its supplier say economies of scale justify the shipping distance.

Enviva also quotes U.S. government figures that show forest inventories have increased by 50 percent over the last 60 years and says the wood pellet industry uses only 2-4 percent of the wood that is harvested.

It says its plants have to submit a life-cycle carbon analysis to Drax and that independent audits have shown wood pellets cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 80 percent relative to coal.

The campaigners dispute that.

“What Drax calls the world’s largest decarbonisation project we call the world’s largest deforestation project,” Dogwood Alliance’s Quaranda said. (Additional reporting by Susanna Twidale in London, editing by William Hardy)

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