Europe and Central Asia
6 Dec 2016

A dirty day for Europe’s clean dream

Vyborgskaya Cellulosa Pellet Plant - Vyborg, North-West Russia ©Alessandro De Pascale
By Sini Eräjää

Last week, the European Commission unveiled its much-hyped Clean Energy package – the map charting Europe’s energy future from 2020 to 2030. Yet for all the pomp and fanfare, the package unequivocally failed to ‘come clean’ on the dark truth behind bioenergy – an alarming omission considering that bioenergy accounts for 65% of the EU’s renewable energy mix. The Commission has proudly hoisted up the green flag, claiming that the package finally introduces the sustainability requirements for bioenergy that many NGOs have repeatedly called for. Yet, in truth, this ship sails under the ominous banner of the Jolly Roger and will only take us into murkier and murkier waters.

All it takes is a slightly closer look at the actual proposals and the dirty side of the Commission’s ‘clean dream’ is quickly revealed. The best potential for sustainable bioenergy lies in different kinds of biomass residues and wastes that do not have other existing uses, i.e. the parts of crops left behind on the field after harvesting, manure or by-products from forest industries such as bark or sawdust. On the flip side, the burning of food crops or good quality whole trees is not only wasteful, it’s unsustainable and often results in an increase in CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, very little about the so-called ‘new restrictions’ on biomass from forests is either new or restrictive; in practice, they will have next-to-no impact on Member States that produce forest biomass or the main countries – Russia and the U.S – that export it (usually in the form of wood-pellets) to the EU. As a result, many bioenergy producers will be able to continue their unsustainable practices unchecked.

Worse still is the package’s failure to address the climate impacts of bioenergy – effectively a rigged casino game of ‘climate roulette’. The sustainability criteria proposed by the Commission does include specific requirements for certain levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) savings for bioenergy, and you may well ask ‘Isn’t this already better?’ However, as strange as it might seem, this requirement only measures emissions from the processing of bioenergy – such as from transporting, drying and compressing of the biomass – but it completely  ignores the carbon that is released from forests, soils and agricultural fields, as well as emissions from indirect land use change (ILUC). These so called ‘biogenic emissions’ are the big elephant in the room; they are responsible for the actual climate impacts of different bioenergy sources.

This development is all the more disappointing, coming as it does in the wake of convincing new research recently published by BirdLife Europe & Central Asia, in collaboration with Transport & Environment – ‘The Black Book of Bioenergy’. Following extensive on-the-ground investigation, and after consulting an array of local sources, we have collected shocking evidence that exposes the dark side of bioenergy. While some may already be familiar with the news-grabbing horror stories from Indonesia (mass clearing of tropical forests for palm oil plantations) or the USA (forest devastation in the Southern states for the lucrative pellet industry), most people will be astonished to hear that similar scenarios are playing out right here in Europe – from the forests of Eastern Slovakia and the maize fields of Lower Saxony (Germany) to the riverbanks of Emilia Romagna (Italy) and the shores of the Canary Islands. The Black Book puts the spotlight on 8 such cases – all of which take place in Europe or are directly linked to European commercial or domestic markets. 

For the launch of the book, on 22 November, we held a bioenergy ‘speakeasy’ in Brussels where we invited leading journalists, NGOs and EU officials working on energy and climate issues to join us for an unusually frank and intimate discussion with those who have witnessed these carbon crimes first-hand. The well-attended event was chaired by award-winning journalist Arthur Neslen who has since written an insightful article about the some of the cases investigated in the Black Book for The Guardian. High profile recognition of the need to impose stronger safeguards on bioenergy is growing – the cat, as they say ‘is out of the bag’. In light of this, the Commission’s Clean Energy package is as scandalous as the carbon crimes it will continue to subsidise. 

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!


Arthur Neslen's article in The Guardian is available here: Protected forests in Europe felled to meet EU renewable targets – report  (24 November 2016)

‘The Black Book of Bioenergy’ can be viewed here.

BirdLife ECA Press Release on the Commission’s Clean Energy Package (30 November, 2016) is available here.


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.