Despite the fact that the Netherlands has some of the strictest sustainability criteria for woody biomass, trees from protected Estonian forests end up in our coal plants. Wood that has been harvested though clear cutting is also deemed sustainable under these Dutch SDE+ criteria, investigation by investigative journalism platform Investico, Argos and De Groene Amsterdammer shows.

Published in Investico and De Groene Amsterdammer

The Dutch government has handed out over 3.5 billion euros in subsidies since 2013. In order to obtain such subsidies energy companies are obliged to show that the wood pellets they use are sourced and produced sustainably. The Dutch government has proudly referred to these so-called SDE+ (Stimulation of Sustainable Energy) demands as being ‘among the strictest in the world’.  

That does not stop Estonian wood from clear-cutting and protected areas being used, nor whole trees and entire species that are deemed ‘low quality’ by foresters. Due to years of mismanagement in Soviet times large shares of Estonian forests can be seen as low quality, an economic term that refers to wood that is deemed as not profitable enough.  

The discussion surrounding the sustainability of wood for biomass has been going on for years. Only when using residues, like sawdust or cuttings, it takes less than several decennia for woody biomass to lead to less CO2 emissions than coal or gas.   

Estonian pellet producer Graanul Invest has been working on SDE+ compliance for several years. The company does not separate the production flows that carry the Dutch sustainability criteria from others. As such, all of their produce complies with these extra strict criteria. The Netherlands accounted for over a quarter of the company’s revenues in 2019.  

Not all of the pellets used in the Netherlands come from whole trees. Sixty percent of all woody biomass used in 2019 were categorized as ‘residues from the agro-food and wood industry’. For these around 500,000 tonnes of biomass the sustainability criteria are less strict, as it does not come straight from the forest. Where it does come from? That was a question none of the institutions involved could answer.  

The Dutch sustainability criteria were supposed to bring clarity and guarantees, but have instead led to a complicated web of rules that make it very hard to check what happens on the ground and in which all parties involved point at one another as being responsible. 

Despite all this, the Dutch ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate maintains that the sustainability of all woody biomass is guaranteed.