France is seeking a waiver to EU bioenergy rules that would allow the forest-covered territory of French Guiana to receive subsidies to produce biofuels for the space industry.
Wedged between Brazil and Suriname, the overseas department has little in common with mainland France bar the name. The Amazon rainforest covers more than 90% of the territory.
However, French Guiana is critical to Europe’s soft power. It is home to the continent’s spaceport where the European Space Agency launches its satellites.
Now, the French government is seeking exemptions from proposed EU rules that would restrict the use of bioenergy on the territory. The loophole would allow French Guiana to receive public financing to produce biofuels “especially for the space sector”.
Local lawmakers argue the dispensation is necessary to protect French Guiana’s forestry sector and accelerate its energy transition. But campaigners have warned the exemption risks setting an incentive for increased logging in Europe’s corner of the Amazon forest.
“Thousands of hectares of Amazon forest could be cleared to be replaced with monocultures designed to produce energy… with the help of public financing,” Marine Calmet, a lawyer specialised in environmental law at NGOs Maiouri Nature Guyane and Wild Legal, told Climate Home News
Rules for biofuels
The EU considers burning wood a renewable energy and subsidises its production. Bioenergy accounts for almost 60% of the EU’s renewable energy mix. But a mounting body of evidence is showing that burning wood emits more carbon dioxide than coal per unit of energy – worsening climate change.
Regrown trees may eventually remove the emitted carbon from the atmosphere but the process could take decades to a century – time which scientists say the world doesn’t have to prevent the worst impacts of global heating. To start addressing the issue, the EU is negotiating stricter sustainability criteria for producing and using bioenergy.
Draft legislation adopted by the EU parliament proposed to exclude “primary woody biomass” – untransformed wood such as whole trees, logs and stumps – from receiving renewable energy subsidies, with limited exceptions. It also caps the amount that can count as renewable energy to current use.
Biomass from agricultural crops can’t be considered renewable if they are grown on land of great biodiversity value or replacing primary and ancient forests.
But French lawmakers introduced an exemption for “an outermost region where forests cover at least 90% of the territory”. It would allow biomass fuels and biofuels “especially used in the space sector” and regardless of their origin to receive public financing if they incentivise the transition away from fossil fuels.
Analysts told Climate Home French Guiana is the only known EU region where this could apply.
Biofuels in the rainforest
The loophole would allow France to count woody bioenergy production in French Guiana towards its own renewable energy target – despite a cap in the rest of the continent. In 2020, France was the only EU member state to fail to achieve its renewable energy target.
Authorities in French Guiana argue the EU’s proposed rules threatened the territory’s goal to move away from fossil fuels, including at the spaceport, which consumes 18% of the electricity produced locally.
Two biomass plants, totalling 9MW, are being built to produce electricity and cooling for operations at the space station. By 2030, French Guiana wants 25% of its electricity mix to come from woody biomass.
Thibault Lechat-Vega, a local official responsible for European affairs, told Climate Home that halting subsidies to the sector would require the territory to import wood pellets from Canada and China “at a catastrophic carbon cost”.
“There is clearly no question of cutting the forest to produce biofuels but to support research to green the European space launcher,” he said, adding that the logging sector in French Guiana followed some of the world’s strictest sustainability criteria.
Waste from forest clearance to give way to agriculture and to build homes and infrastructure would be used, he explained.
But Calmet said these assurances were insufficient. “Elected officials are providing no guarantees about the origins of the biomass. On the contrary, they want to contravene all legal obligations designed to protect primary and old forests, and ecosystems with high biodiversity value,” she said.
While rocket launches account for a tiny fraction of the space industry’s emissions, a number of companies are developing greener propellants, including using biofuels. In French Guiana, researchers are working to scale up biofuels production from micro algae.
Andreas Schütz, a chemical propellant expert at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), told Climate Home that producing rocket fuels from wood, using a process known as gasification, is feasible.
But Mike Mason, an engineer who researched biomass at Oxford University, said the process was “very expensive” and that burning wood to produce electricity remains inefficient.
“Wood is a renewable resource but burning it has a global warming impact,” said Mason, warning of the risk of creating a precedent for climate-damaging activities in the Amazon.
Negotiations on the draft rules are ongoing. Sources close to the discussions told Climate Home that while the EU Council showed willing to accommodate France’s request, the Commission was concerned about the biodiversity impacts.
France recently closed a consultation on requesting the waiver. The government said “minimal environmental guarantees” would be put in place to limit tree clearance for energy production purposes.