I learned of Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission, during the last press conference I covered at the UN climate summit in Madrid in 2019. Astonished at the absence of any discussion of whether burning woody biomass (wood pellets) and the forests it took to produce them was actually a viable climate-mitigation strategy, I posed a question to Timmermans in a room packed with European journalist. My question was something like: A top EU priority is accuracy in carbon accounting, yet EU policy promotes the burning of biomass in which emissions go uncounted at the smokestack. Is this carbon accounting discrepancy something you’re concerned about?
After a pause that led me to think he planned to ignore my question, he provided, to me, a surprising answer: Yes, he was concerned. The science on biomass has changed in recent years, he said. The EU needed to make sure it wasn’t doing more harm than good when it came to biomass-for-energy. This policy would be revisited under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive in 2021.
Pretty big story. My editor agreed. And we put Timmermans on the record globally saying, for the first time, that biomass wasn’t an unquestioned, common-sense, climate-friendly substitute for coal — which is most definitely is not.
This story is in some ways a follow up to that December 2019 story. The pressure on Timmermans has been intense for nearly two years — from all sides: anti-biomass advocates, EU countries with trees to clear, a rapidly growing, multibillion-dollar biomass industry. Timmermans, as my story illustrates, has learned a great deal about the science of biomass, its impact on forests and carbon neutrality. But as the European Commission tries to decide if it will regulate biomass to protect forests and perhaps increase accuracy in carbon emissions accounting, Timmermans remains on the fence about which way he will push his European colleagues.