The newly revised Renewable Energy Directive continues to greenlight burning trees for energy

Posted on 10 Apr 2023
EU co-legislators agreed on the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) last week in Brussels after a record long negotiation at the end of March. The agreement, which bundles both revisions under the ‘Fit for 55’ package and ‘RePowerEU’, should be the Union’s road map towards a renewable future. But the WWF believes that the failure to tackle the biomass problem means that a lot of harm will be done along the way.

During the final negotiations between European institutions (trilogue meetings), EU co-legislators decided on a higher Renewable Energy Target (RET) of 42.5%, with a voluntary target of 45%, up from the previous 32%. The WWF welcomes this increase, but notes that it is still behind the facts, as recent studies have shown that the EU is on track to achieve more than the voluntary 45% by 2030.

On top of that, the higher target could end up being a Trojan horse if it is not achieved by wind and solar, but by burning additional primary woody biomass (e.g. tree trunks), which can increase emissions of CO2 for decades to centuries, as compared to fossil fuels. The negotiators also failed to limit the use of primary biomass by abandoning the Parliament’s proposal for a cap on the amount of primary woody biomass that can count as renewable energy. Instead, they merely settled for weak provisions on the cascading principle, but with a long list of exceptions, meaning that business as usual will continue. 

Forest biomass energy still constitutes the largest source of renewable energy in many CEE countries, constituting 38% of Hungary’s renewable electricity and 20% in Bulgaria. Across the region, forest biomass based heating is used by 30 to 40% of the population, predominantly by the most vulnerable consumers and in low efficiency burning stoves.

For CEE countries, the final RED provisions and the weak cascade use principle might fail to incentivise a more optimal use of quality round wood for other economic sectors; now, much will depend on the willingness of national authorities to align national legislation in the forestry and energy sectors to proper implementation of the cascade use principle so that only residues and fine woody debris are available for energy production. 

When translating RED into national legislation, additional sustainability criteria can be added by Member States. As such, the WWF believes that for countries dependent on solid forest biomass, national governments must cap the use of primary biomass, as well as adopt transition calendars for eliminating the use of firewood with a higher moisture content than 20%, thus reducing emissions from wood combustion as well as increasing the efficiency of the burnt wood. CEE countries also need to improve the traceability of forest biomass as well as adopt certification schemes to be able to account for the implementation of sustainable criteria by power plants.

Fortunately, the ban of direct financial support for the use of saw logs, veneer logs, industrial grade roundwood and stumps and roots to produce energy could have an impact on reducing the use of primary wood biomass, including energy plantations in Hungary as well as hard firewood across the region. But the devil is in the details, as only direct financial support such as payments, investment aids and direct price support schemes will be banned; tax benefits for example, will not. 

Another further loophole in the final RED comes from the derogation of allocating financial support, new or renewed, to biomass in electricity-only installations from regions identified in a territorial just transition plan. There are now also derogations that allow support for installations which apply the RED II sustainability criteria until 2030. Such provisions risk being misused nationally; for example, if there are no transparent reporting and enforcement means for power plants on GHG emissions and the efficiency criteria from RED II, as it is currently the case in the region.

For more information:

Ana-Maria Seman, Climate and Infrastructure Regional Lead WWF-CEE,