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  • Writer's pictureAdhish Gurung

Why the Dutch could be to blame for deforestation near you!

In the Dutch town of Diemen, just a few kilometers south of Amsterdam, the largest biomass plant in the Netherlands is being built. Owned by the multinational Swedish energy company Vattenfall, the biomass plant will burn through wood harvested from forests to generate energy. On paper, biomass energy is a seemingly benign alternative to fossil-fueled energy. Proponents of biomass argue that energy will be generated by burning biowaste, sawmill residue, and forest overgrowth - materials that have little or no value. However, scientific research has shown that biomass energy produces larger carbon emissions than coal-fired energy and causes large-scale destruction of forests. 

Not enough wood out there!

Currently, five coal-fired power plants operate in the Netherlands. The Dutch government, along with EU regulators, consider biomass plants to be a carbon-neutral gamble. It argues that the growth of new trees could absorb the additional carbon released from the burning of wood pellets compared to burning fossil fuels. However, the quantity of wood pellets required to power all 10 biomass megaprojects across Europe, such as the one proposed in Diemen, would be a staggering figure. The proposed conversion of coal-fired plants to biomass plants in Europe would require the entirety of the wood-pellet production currently available globally. Forests covering 2,700 sq km would have to be cut down annually, equivalent to half of Germany’s Black Forest or almost all of Yosemite National Park in the United States. The Diemen biomass plant is expected to be powered by wood harvested from forests in Canada, the USA, and the Baltic States. 

(Biomass fuel at Drax power station in North Yorkshire. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

Local health risks

Diemen mayor Erik Boog and residents infuriated by the proposed plan have urged the Dutch parliament to stop the biomass subsidy that makes the Vattenfall biomass plant possible. Boog has said “there is no social and political support” for the proposed plant and has cited the possibility of increased air pollution locally that would affect citizens. There are severe concerns about the concentration of fine dust in the surrounding air as a result of the plant. Similarly, according to Fred Vos of Duurzam Dorp Diemen (a residents’ group), young children, the elderly, and people with respiratory ailments such as asthma will be particularly at risk. 

Growing coalition against biomass

Environmental coalitions across North America and Europe have mobilized to arrest the development of the Diemen biomass power plant. In January 2018, almost 800 scientists signed and delivered a letter to the European Parliament urging it to stop subsidies for biomass plants that assist companies such as Vattenfall. The letter stated, “the solution to replacing coal is not to go back to burning forests, but instead to replace fossil fuels with low carbon sources, such as solar and wind”. However, 14 billion euros in subsidies for biomass plants are still set aside in the Netherlands alone. 

Dutch research on biomass lacks transparency

Led by Dogwood Alliance in the United States, an environmental coalition has demanded that the PBL, part of the Dutch government, release their research on the sources of forests that will fire the power plant. Alarmingly, the PBL has chosen to exclude peer-reviewed scientific research from their inquiry. This is a massive red flag against claims made by the PBL on the long-term viability of the proposed biomass plant. Peer-reviewed research is a benchmark of trustworthy and reliable research and without it, the claims made by the PBL on the sustainability of the biomass plants cannot be considered reliable. This issue has particularly alarmed environmental organizations in the United States where forests are currently being cut down to fuel biomass energy in the Netherlands. 

Next legal steps

Amsterdam Fossiel Vrij has formally launched a case in court against the Municipality of Amsterdam for its intention to switch from natural gas to other sources, which increases the utilization of biomass energy. The country is in a critical stage of transition and the massive amount of subsidies set aside (14 billion euros) for biomass must be diverted to more renewable sources.  

To learn more about the current legal battle against biomass, support and follow Amsterdam Fossiel Vrij's work here.

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