Europe’s Proposed Climate Plan will Outsource Deforestation and Harm Biodiversity

Written by
Staff Writers
Nov. 30, 2022

Europe’s “Fit for 55” climate plan, through its bioenergy rules, outsources deforestation and sacrifices Europe’s opportunity for a beneficial land future.

In July 2021, the European Union proposed a policy package that aimed to reduce EU greenhouse gas emissions by fifty-five percent by 2030. The series of laws known as “Fit for 55” are the subject of final negotiations between the European Parliament and the European Council, which represent EU country governments. However, a new analysis by Princeton University and scientists from several European institutions finds that the current Fit for 55 laws will sacrifice carbon storage and biodiversity in Europe and outsource deforestation to other parts of the world.

The article published in the prominent science journal Nature finds that the Fit for 55 plan will lead to a doubling of Europe’s demand for bioenergy, cause Europe to divert twenty percent of its cropland to energy crops, and increase the import of wood for bioenergy four-fold. It does so because the bioenergy provisions in effect treat land as free by ignoring the climate value either of using land to produce food or to store carbon in habitats in Europe. Although the plan claims to restore habitat and associated carbon storage in Europe, the researchers find that this bioenergy use leaves no land for more habitat and will also destroy half of Europe’s biologically diverse semi-natural grasslands.

The article also finds that Europe is already outsourcing its agricultural supply and therefore land use to other countries, and that the plan will maintain or increase this outsourcing. By diverting much cropland from food to energy production in Europe, the plan will require more cropland expansion and deforestation in the tropics. By contrast, using new modeling, the article finds that with reasonable efforts and without these bioenergy incentives, Europe could protect global forests by eliminating this outsourcing and free up thirty percent of Europe’s cropland for more habitat and carbon storage in Europe.

Tim Searchinger

Tim Searchinger

“The plan sacrifices Europe’s great opportunity for a beneficial land future -- one with more habitat, carbon storage and biodiversity in Europe and one that eliminates Europe’s contribution to deforestation abroad,” said Tim Searchinger, senior research scholar at Princeton University and lead author of the new paper. “By treating land as free, the current plan encourages more harvesting of wood and diversion of vast areas of cropland from food to energy use regardless of the consequences for storing carbon in forests and other habitats,” Searchinger said.

At their core, the new Fit for 55 laws would require substitution of fossil fuels with carbon-free energy, such as solar and wind. However, the laws generally provide the same incentives to switch to bioenergy, including not merely from wastes, but from harvesting and burning more trees or from diverting cropland to energy crops.

According to the researchers, with negotiations still underway, the EU has an opportunity to correct its land accounting errors and avoid some of these costs. An amendment currently under consideration would limit the climate benefit energy users receive for harvesting and burning wood for bioenergy to 2020 levels. Such an amendment to the Renewable Energy Directive could help limit the demand for bioenergy that is driving much of Europe’s expanded “land carbon footprint” – which the researchers define as the amount of carbon lost from native habitats to supply Europe with crops, food, and wood.

Oliver James
Oliver James. Credit: Egan Jimenez

“To solve climate change and protect biodiversity, the world needs to freeze or reduce its land carbon footprint,” said Oliver James, a researcher at Princeton’s Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment and a co-author of the paper. “The current Fit for 55 plans will only increase Europe’s demand for land elsewhere. But with some changes to bioenergy incentives, Europe could not only stop this outsourcing, but free up thirty percent of its cropland to grow more food and save forests around the world,” James said.

“Europe needs to reduce its footprint because it is already outsourcing deforestation by using one hectare of cropland abroad for each four hectares in Europe,” said Patrice Dumas, a senior researcher at CIRAD in France. “Europe’s large land use puts Europe in a good position to cut back,” Dumas said.

“The EU has also proposed laws that encourage countries to increase carbon storage in Europe and to stop importing crops from newly deforested land abroad,” said Stefan Wirsenius, associate professor at Chalmers Institute of Technology in Sweden. “But the bioenergy provisions render these laws ineffective. Energy users still have incentives to use newly harvested wood or cropland diverted from food production, and if European countries do more to protect their forests, the result will be even more outsourcing,” Wirsenius said.

“A critical requirement to save the climate, forests and biodiversity is for Europe to stop expanding and instead to reduce its footprint,” said Thomas Kastner, senior scientist at Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany. “Outsourcing is not reducing,” Kastner added.

“The best hope now is to freeze the amount of wood that European countries can burn and claim reduces greenhouse gases,” Searchinger said. “Longer-term reforms will still be needed to stop Europe from outsourcing its food supply and increasing global deforestation.”


The paper, “EU climate plan sacrifices carbon storage and biodiversity for bioenergy,” appears in the printed version of Nature on November 30, 2022. Funding for this research was provided by the David & Lucille Packard Foundation, the European Climate Foundation, and Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. The authors include Timothy Searchinger and Oliver James of Princeton University, Patrice Dumas (Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement, France); Thomas Kastner (Institute of Social Economy, Austria); and Stefan Wirsenius (Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden).