Bord na Móna cited in landmark EU case on use of forest biomass

EU’s Renewable Energy Directive ignores science on forest bioenergy, says plaintiff

Classifying forest biomass as a renewable fuel "fatally undermines the goals of the new European Renewable Energy Directive", according to plaintiffs from six countries including Ireland in an action filed on Monday at the European General Court.

Each claims to have suffered, in diverse and particular ways, from the consequences of the directive’s biomass energy policy.

One of the plaintiffs, Tony Lowes of Ireland's environmental NGO Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), has cited the co-firing with biomass of Ireland's peat-powered electricity generating plants in the midlands.

The lawsuit seeks to remove forest biomass from the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive recently approved by the EU, The directive, known as RED II, raises the overall EU target for renewable energy sources consumption by 2030 from 20 per cent to 32 per cent.


However, the plaintiffs contend RED II “ignores the science on forest bioenergy and promotes false climate solutions”.

According to Dr Mary S Booth, director of the US Partnership for Policy Integrity and lead science advisor on the case, "burning wood for energy emit more CO2 per unit of energy generated than coal but RED II counts these emissions as zero".

RED II also failed to properly account for the lifecycle carbon emissions from harvesting, producing, transporting, and burning woody biomass fuels, she added, “including the loss of carbon sequestration potential after the vast increase in industrial logging destroys the very forest systems that have until now absorbed carbon from the atmosphere”.

To address climate change, “we need a lot more tall trees”, yet current forest levels were far too low, to offset emissions and to achieve the EU target of “net zero” by 2050, Dr Booth said.

“Burning up our forest sinks and injecting carbon into the atmosphere” would continue as long as biomass was being burned in such quantities as evidenced today.

Moreover, explosive growth in the use of forest biomass was predicted up to 2030, she said.

“Ireland’s co-firing of peat powered plants with biomass is an example of a ‘false climate solution’,” Mr Lowes said during a telebriefing on the case.

The Irish Climate Change Advisory Council has concluded, "the bio-mass subsidy for peat power plants is an environmentally harmful subsidy resulting in substantially higher emissions of greenhouse gases at significant direct cost to the nation", he pointed out.

According to the EPA report on Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions projections 2017-2035, “this demand is increasing the price of biomass, resulting in ‘energy demand in heating being met by more fossil fuels because of the biomass subsidy of peat powered plants’,” he said.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has forecast the annual supply gap in wood production for biomass could be up to 1.88 million cubic metres by 2020 and more than twice that by 2025, “all of which must be sourced outside Ireland”, he said.

The case is coordinated by the US-based Partnership for Policy Integrity with input from experts including the Dogwood Alliance; one of more than 30 conservation and environmental justice organisations in the southern US who wrote to the Government, the ESB and Bord na Móna in August 2018 pointing out it was planned that wood used in the Irish power plants would come from their region – the North Atlantic Coastal Plain.

They pointed out their coastal hardwood forests “are at the heart of the world’s 36th biodiversity hotspot” and were being felled with no legal obligation to replant. “The forests in the region need to, instead, be left standing to protect communities, fight climate change, and provide habitat for plants and animals,” the groups said.

Wood pellets from forests and pine plantations in the southern US are the most likely biomass source for any industrial scale co-firing and future power station conversions in Ireland, according to Bord na Móna’s 2016 annual report – though it has indicated since it is seeking to source more biomass in Ireland.

If the court in Luxembourg agrees to hear the case, it would be the first time an NGO has been granted standing before it to challenge an EU law or regulation. The other plaintiffs are from Estonia, France, Romania, Slovakia and the US.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times