Sixteen reporters in eight countries lift the lid on Europe’s inscrutable biomass industry.

For three months, a cross-border team led by Argos, the award-winning investigative journalism platform of Dutch public broadcasters VPRO and Human, put everything related to Europe’s burgeoning biomass trade under the microscope, from subsidies and certifications to a powerful European lobby.

The result: a pan-European story about the effect of Western European subsidies on Estonia’s forests, plus a series of radio, print and online publications in partner media outlets.

View the project page, including a multimedia interactive.

In 2009, the Renewable Energy Directive came into force across the EU, mandating that member states must start to transition their energy supply to renewable sources. Since then, we have seen the rapid growth of biomass as an alternative “renewable” fuel.

Biomass, specifically wood pellets, has become the main source of renewable energy in the EU, with a share of almost 60 percent, fuelled by lucrative subsidies from member states relying on it for their transition. An entire industry has developed around the switch to biomass that operates across state lines and with almost no scrutiny or transparency.

Tracing the path of pellets from forest to furnace, this investigation is the first of its kind to look at this industry with a Europe-wide lens, using the expertise of on-the-ground reporters to track the trade and its beneficiaries across the bloc.

State-of-the-art geospatial tools helped advance the investigation remotely, revealing how Europe’s renewable energy policies are accelerating clear-cutting in protected natural areas, with disastrous consequences for the bloc’s ability to meet international climate goals.

The investigation has been cited in the Estonian parliament. Dutch radio broadcasts were picked up by media across the Netherlands. The team’s interactive was cited by a leading non-profit during a December 2020 meeting of the European Commission, in which attendees discussed a revision to the Renewable Energy Directive. Climate activist Greta Thunberg shared one of the articles with her 4.4 million followers on Twitter.

Money to Burn was also runner-up for the prestigious Innovation Award of the 2021 European Press Prize.

Picture: A drone image of an area of cleared forest in Haanja Nature Reserve, southern Estonia. Photo credit: Liis Treimann.

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