ECJ ends the EU biomass case on grounds of standing, but the political battle over forest biomass continues

For Immediate Release

Contact: Mary S. Booth, Partnership for Policy Integrity | mbooth… at….

January 28, 2021

The EU Court of Justice (ECJ) has declined to hear a legal challenge to an EU policy promoting burning forest wood as so-called ‘zero emissions’ renewable energy. Plaintiffs from six countries had accused the EU of creating renewable energy polices that destroy forest ecosystems and undermine efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The ECJ’s decision was based solely on a finding that the applicants did not have the standing required to bring the complaint, meaning the case has ended without the Court considering the merits of the case.

The case was filed in March 2019 by applicants from Estonia, France, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia and the USA. The plaintiffs challenged the classification of wood from forests burnt for energy, known as forest biomass, as a ‘zero emissions fuel’ in the EU’s 2018 revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II). As well as pointing out that burning wood actually increases greenhouse gas emissions, the applicants cited specific harms to their own wellbeing, including health problems from air pollution and the loss of sacred forest sites for traditional religious practices. Nevertheless, the ECJ rejected the case, stating the applicants lacked standing because they are not individually affected by the EU’s policy and their situation would be no different from that of all other EU citizens. The applicants appealed this decision, but the Court delivered a final negative judgment on standing on 14 January 2021.

Rowan Smith, solicitor at Leigh Day, the London firm that brought the case, stated that “Each of our clients is uniquely affected by the forest biomass industry. Yet strict Court rules mean they have no recourse to challenge these EU laws. If nothing else, this legal case has succeeded in exposing why those rules are no longer fit for purpose in a net-zero world.”

Ben Mitchell, one of the barristers who litigated the case, stated “Obviously we are disappointed. While NGOs have standing in many member state courts, they do not have standing for direct actions before the EU’s Courts. This lack of access to justice in the ECJ’s General Court stops individuals and NGOs defending themselves and the rights of EU citizens. That’s a huge problem, and this case shows once again that the EU needs to fix it.”

Peter Sabo of WOLF Forest Protection Movement in Slovakia, the lead applicant on the case, said “Here in Slovakia, the EU’s promotion of biomass has led to wide-scale logging of forests, which are fed into biomass power plants. We see the same thing happening in other countries.  The EU’s biomass policies have been a disaster for forests, and the supposed protections in the revised RED will do nothing to stop the damage.”

RED II contains ‘sustainability’ criteria, which are supposed to ensure that biomass energy protects forests and delivers a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. However, the plaintiffs’ biomass case argued that these claims were false. They argued that promoting the burning of forests for fuel also violates provisions in the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU (TFEU), which require environmental policy to be based on science and to protect the environment. The case also referenced the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, including requirements that EU policies integrate a high level of protection of human health and the environment.

Hasso Krull, one of the applicants, referred to increasing devastation by the wood pellet industry in Estonia. “In Estonia we see deforestation for wood pellets in the name of supposedly green ‘renewable energy.’ But regular people know ecocide when they see it. We need the EU to reform its biomass policies in line with its own science before Estonia’s forests are irretrievably damaged.”

Since the case was filed, some EU policy statements have suggested that policymakers are increasingly aware of bioenergy impacts. The EU’s new Biodiversity Strategy calls to minimize use of whole trees for energy, while a recent review of air quality rules acknowledges that burning wood and other biomass is a major source of air pollution, which was already killing over 1,000 people per day even before the exacerbating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.  The EU has now opened a consultation until 9 February that could lead to revisions in how biomass is treated under the RED II. Over 100 NGOs have endorsed a public petition calling on the EU to stop counting the burning of forest wood as a form of renewable energy.  

Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity and the coordinator of the case, observed, “The suit showed how EU policy misleads citizens, directly harms them, and hides the damage the biomass industry is doing to forests, climate, and air quality. It’s ironic that the Court rejected the case because too many EU citizens may also be hurt by these policies. We should indeed all be alarmed that the EU promotes logging and burning forests for renewable energy. Let’s hope the European Commission’s enacts some real reform.”

EU Court refuses to hear international complaint against forest-destroying renewable energy policies