It looks like greenwash. European nations publicly keen to boost their climate credentials by switching to “green” biomass are accused of working behind the scenes to expunge their carbon emissions from burning wood in power stations from national emissions statistics.
“If we don’t measure emissions when trees are cut, we won’t measure them at all,” says Hannah Mowat of FERN, a European NGO working to save the continent’s forests, who has followed the EU negotiations on the issue.
Under international climate treaties such as the Paris Agreement, burning biomass like wood is defined as carbon-neutral, even though it emits as least as much carbon as fossil fuels. The assumption is that new trees will be grown to take up the carbon emitted from the burning.
If countries reduce their forest cover – as a result of harvesting trees for biomass burning or anything else – the carbon loss should show up in national statistics under a complex accounting process known as LULUCF, for Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry.
But measuring carbon stocks on the land and in forests is an inexact science, and critics say the LULUCF rules are wide open to accounting errors.
On 19 June, European environment ministers will set their own rules for LULUCF carbon accounting. How they do this will play an important role in Europe meeting its emissions targets under the Paris Agreement.
But Mowat says that countries with plans to replace coal and nuclear fuel burning with wood are lobbying for rules that will obscure likely resulting emissions.
“France, Austria, Sweden and Finland are fighting tooth and nail to weaken the EU’s rules,” Mowat told New Scientist. “This is because they all plan to significantly increase the amount of trees they cut in the next decade: Finland will increase harvesting by 25 per cent and France by 20 per cent, and they don’t want to count the emissions.”
Government data show that France plans to increase timber harvesting by 12 million cubic metres by 2026. Finland plans a 15 million cubic metre increase, almost entirely for burning more wood in power stations.
Fewer trees will mean less carbon being soaked up from the atmosphere, too.
Mowat estimates that the reduction in the EU’s total forest carbon sink between now and 2030 is equivalent to the emissions of 100 million cars.