EU funds and biomass: Slovakia risks losing sight of both the wood and the trees
Bankwatch Mail | 8 August 2014
EU funds for the 2014-2020 budgetary period look set to further fuel the massive over-exploitation of biomass for energy use in Slovakia. Formally, both the European Commission and the Slovak Ministry of Economy have announced the introduction of sustainability rules to govern the use of new EU money. Yet only the final phase of EU funds programming – now under way – will determine whether or not this latest injection of EU investment money will recklessly contribute to the destruction of Slovakia’s key natural treasure – its forests.
This article is from Issue 60 of our quarterly newsletter Bankwatch Mail
The biomass debate in Slovakia is acute, in part because of increased pressure to meet targets for share of renewables use within the EU’s overall energy sector – though this seemingly positive trend is complicated, and hampered, by poorly defined, mostly quantitative targets, that can be seen to be permitting an unsustainable biomass ‘free for all’ situation. With final spending decisions as part of the EU funds programming process now due in the coming weeks, Slovakia’s natural resources are in danger of being strained beyond all reasonable limits.
Falling trees, rising biomass use
The disappearance of trees and shrubs in Slovakia has become almost impossible to ignore. On riverbanks, roadsides, unused fields and meadows, and in the forests themselves (whether protected or not), logging has been growing rapidly and consistently over the last decade. Indeed, the first EU funded support period that began in 2004 resulted in a sharp increase in biomass energy utilisation. The consumption of solid biomass in heating plants jumped from nearly zero to 2,900 tonnes in 2004, reaching – according to data from the Slovak Hydro-meteorological Institute – 433,300 tonnes in 2010.
Moreover, the quantity of logged biomass has significantly exceeded sustainable harvest levels every year for the last 17 years. For the 2008-2010 period, the level of over-exploitation was on average 21 percent over the nationally set sustainable harvest limit, with harvests increasing by 87 percent in the 20 years up to 2010. The price of biomass has also risen sharply due to EU support for major biomass-fired installations bringing about substantial increases in demand for biomass.
This is resulting in social impacts in poor regions where households and small municipalities have been shifting to biomass because of rising gas prices. Fuel poverty is thus becoming an acute issue, alongside the phenomenon of heavily subsidised large companies depleting local resources.
So-called ‘white areas’ have become the most heavily exploited source of biomass. These cover all areas which are not regulated as forests and include riverbanks, roadsides, fields and meadows lying fallow and that have been naturally turned into forests by wind-spread seeds.
The speed with which destructive felling and chipping has been taking place in these areas is staggering. The most dramatic level of felling to date has occurred in the environs of the River Slatina in central Slovakia, where 27,000 trees and 90,000 square metres of shrubs have been logged for energy purposes – such a procedure, following the permitting green light, can be executred quickly in a matter of weeks.
What makes these kind of developments all the more galling is the blatant disconnect taking place between so-called ‘clean’ energy target fulfillment and the need for climate adaptation and anti-flood protection measures – the ongoing sharp increase in logging for energy production is only having negative effects on the latter measures.
EU funds in the pot
EU funds in the 2014-2020 period will bring in several hundred million euros for renewables support, the majority of which as far as Slovakia is concerned will flow into biomass utilisation. In comments to the draft Operational Programme Quality of Environment, the European Commission has already clearly expressed its position on sustainability criteria, demanding a detailed description of rules for project selection.
For its part, the Slovak Ministry of Economy has thus far pledged to elaborate such criteria, but the fact that the main focus of EU-funded renewables support is being aimed at large installations (up to 20 MW) has stoked concerns that small-scale, decentralised, locally-oriented biomass use will not feature in the funding spotlight.
Moreover, the fact that all approximate 20 MW power installations are currently burning coal means that supporting a fuel shift in these facilities will end up producing carbon ‘lock-in’ effects. And why? Shifting to biomass in these kind of large power stations accounts for usually only up to 20 percent of their total fuel use – their main, continuing fuel source still remains coal. Public money support for such a shift is delivering very marginal – if not outright questionable – benefits compared to the ending of such fossil fuel-dominated production and replacing it with altogether new, clean installations.
Where to from here?
Overall, it looks like no real transformation of the Slovak energy sector is foreseen within the Cohesion Policy and by the substantial funds that accompany it. Municipalities, SMEs and even NGOs to a certain degree have been granted eligibility to draw available funds for biomass projects, but only the final decisive stage of programming will show whether this is simply lip service or real commitment. The Ministry of Economy has to come to terms with the limitations of funding biomass use and establish stringent criteria for project selection.
The European Commission also needs to play a more active role, one that goes beyond merely commenting on operating programmes and instead moves towards establishing binding rules for biomass use – the introduction of a biomass specific EU directive is long overdue. Pushback against such steps, of course, is huge as big energy companies can sniff the burning wood and smell the public cash.
Only public pressure can match this industry pressure, and currently in Slovakia a major campaign against support for biomass energy utilisation is being spearheaded across the country by the conservationist movement Vlk (‘Wolf’), and is attracting increasing public support.
Yet such an anti-campaign has to be accompanied by a suitably pitched awareness campaign that explains to the public how our still abundant, but increasingly threatened, natural resources can be used meaningfully and sustainably. Here is the trick – building pressure against biomass can deflect attention away from the real benefits of a sustainable biomass-based economic model which has major potential in Slovakia’s rural regions. For a start, this means using locally sourced biomass, and relying on, for example, ‘waste biomass’ rather than high quality wood stocks.
With the clock ticking down to the final decision-making for EU funds allocations in 2014-2020, the Slovak public still has time to demand – in Bratislava and Brussels – binding biomass sustainability criteria. Approach national parliamentarians and MEPs, speak to your mayors. All of them can still help to ensure more order, more rationale and less ultimate devastation resulting from the biomass funding negotiations.