Environment  Mongabay: Forest biomass-burning supply chain from US to Europe is producing major carbon emissions: Studies

This story came up quickly, was reported in a a morning and afternoon, and posted the following morning — thanks to my tireless editor Glenn Scherer. Initially, I was given a heads up that one study would be released late Wednesday night (Oct. 13, 2021) and Glenn gave me the greenlight to pursue it. When I contacted a source at National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sasha Stashwick, about connecting me with a British House of Lords member with a strong position on biomass burning in the United Kingdom, she let me know that NRDC had also released a biomass-related study with similar research metrics. I combined the two studies into one story.

Another source overseas, Almuth Earnsting with Biofuelwatch, brought to my attention the quick pushback from the wood pellet industry as posted by Biomass Magazine. I made sure we got its criticisms of one of the studies in the story.

The stakes for accuracy in carbon emissions accounting continue to rise higher and higher, especially as the 26th United Nations climate summit looms in in Glasgow, Scotland, in early November. NGOs are fairly apoplectic that the issue of burning biomass and the tons of uncounted carbon emissions at the smokestack at former coal-fired plants in the UK and across the European Union, is not an official agenda item as nations finalize the Paris rulebook for implementing fully the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Several NGOs who applied for side events in Glasgow to press their points about biomass were denied permission. They are incensed and believe the host nation — the largest consumer of wood pellets in the world — is eager to downplay the science of biomass carbon accounting and its impact on mature forests in the US, Canada and eastern Europe.

Here’s an excerpt from my story:

With the two-week United Nations COP26 summit starting in Glasgow, Scotland, on Oct. 31, both studies call into question the validity of the 2030 carbon reduction pledges made by three of the world’s largest carbon polluters — the U.S. (with a 50% reduction pledge), U.K. (58%) and E.U. (55%). While these Paris Agreement signatories may meet those goals on paper, nature will know that no such atmospheric emissions cuts have been achieved as wood pellets are burned.

Caption for the graphic above: The existing and proposed wood pellet plants in the US Southeast (yellow and red circles) and the harvest areas of each plant (larger beige circles). Source: Southern Environmental Law Center.

Anti-biomass protesters outside the EU headquarters in Brussels in summer 2021 when delegates were debating possible changes to the Renewable Energy Directive. Few substantive changes were made regarding biomass burning, carbon accounting or subsidies.

Environment  Mongabay: Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action — story and video

Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington state, U.S. Image by Tjflex2 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

This story linked here is one I originally imagined reporting from Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The Canadian province seems intent allowing the last of its majestic, irreplaceable old-growth forests be taken by the timber and pellet industries — aside from perhaps the Great Bear Rainforest on the central coast. But Covid restrictions locked the border between the US and Canada in late July (2021), so I shifted my focus to Washington state and Olympic National Park for my first field reporting since summer 2019.

My idea was simple — tour a coastal, old-growth rainforest with a forest ecologist and discuss why such rare ecosystems are important to harboring vast biodiversity, cleansing air and watersheds, and storing more carbon per hectare than the rainforests of the tropics. A good source and expert, Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Wild Heritage: Earth Island Institute, agreed to fly up from Oregon to meet me on the Upper Peninsula of Washington state, just a few miles across the sound from British Columbia.

I also wanted a video, linked here, to complement my story. My my editor Glenn Scherer approved a budget for me to hire Seattle-based Ted Grudowski, a friend of my Greensboro neighbor and documentarian Michael Frierson (lucky connections all around). Ted is an award-winning environmental videographer and knows the Olympic National Park inside out. He was as much as a fixer in helping me map a plan for where to report from as he was an expert videographer in capturing my hike with DellaSala, and later, a key interview with John Talberth, an expert Pacific Northwest forest conversation. The multimedia package came together exactly as I hoped it would, with a special assist from Mongabay video producers Manon Verchot in India, Lucia Torres in Spain and Lisa Golden in Great Britain.

Here’s an excerpt:

“As humans endure one of the worst summers ever punctuated by climate catastrophes around the world, and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its most dire report yet, I’ve invited DellaSala, past president of the Society of Conservation Biology, to join me on this hike to discuss the value of old-growth forests.

“What’s at stake in protecting much of what’s left? How can government policy on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border do more to preserve old-growth, perhaps the most effective means we have of slowing the alarming rate of global warming — letting tall, old trees grow taller and older in large, fully intact ecosystems?”

Northwest Coastal Map: Coastal temperate rainforests, among the rarest ecosystems on Earth as well as being the most carbon dense, stretch along the Pacific Coast from northern California to the Alaska panhandle. Map (left) by Dominick DellaSala and Island Press / photo (right) by John Schoen.

Environment  Mongabay: The science of forest biomass — Conflicting studies map the controversy

Before: An Estonian forest filled with a variety of tree species and a natural habitat for biodiversity. Such ecosystems are essential to climate mitigation, from carbon sequestration to flood control.
After: The same Estonian forest clear cut so that the stemwood — tree trunks seen stacked in rows — can be shipped to one of the world’s largest wood-pellet producers. This is an ecosystem destroyed. Biodiversity scattered, carbon sequestration is diminished, flood control lost. Photos by Karl Adami

This story was months in the making. Glenn Scherer, my editor at Mongabay, and I had been discussing a story that took a step back from the breaking news around climate policy and rising biomass consumption to look at the science behind the issue. Since last spring, I researched and printed out peer-reviewed studies with diverging outcomes and read them closely. The biomass industry can point to scores of research that supports its claim that wood pellets are good for forests and a genuine climate solution, while forest advocates can pile up even more research that explains just how big a mistake the Kyoto Protocol made when it classified all bioenergy as renewable and carbon neutral.

Because there are so many points of difference, the biggest challenge in this story was narrowing the scope of issues to compare, knowing full well that in a 2,000-word story, important issues would not make it into this story. Still, I kept my focus on the issues industry officials tend to use the most in defending themselves against their growing chorus of critics.

This particular story is as balanced as fairness allows. By that I mean, it is fair in clearly explaining the industry arguments and citing the studies that back their claims, while making sure to be accurate in the overall thrust of the story in terms of the impact woody biomass is having on — to pick just one issue — the accuracy of carbon-emissions accounting.

This is among the more important stories I’ve done on this issue since I started covering it in 2018. Hopefully, it will serve as a trustworthy resource for new reporters coming to this story and heavily lobbied policymakers trying to figure out who and what to believe when it comes to energy generation and actual climate mitigation.

In the Southeast U.S. — the world’s largest producer of wood pellets — natural forests are often cleared and then replanted with pine plantations. Environmentalists say fast-growing pine does not sequester nearly as much carbon as the hardwood and softwood forests they replace, nor harbor much biodiversity. Biomass backers say fast growing young forests sequester more carbon than mature forests. Pine plantations like this one are harvested on 20-year time cycles. Photo credit: nationalagroforestrycenter on Visualhunt

Environment  Mongabay: Forest advocates press EU leader to rethink views on biomass and energy

Forest advocates in Brussels put pressure on EU Commissioners, especially Executive VP Frans Timmermans, to drastically revise regulations pertaining to burning woody biomass for energy and heat. The advocates presented the commissioners with a petition containing 200,000 signatures from EU citizens calling on its 27 member nations to phase out national subsidies for biomass burning and prioritize forest and biodiversity protections. Image by Daniel Djamo.

I learned of Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission, during the last press conference I covered at the UN climate summit in Madrid in 2019. Astonished at the absence of any discussion of whether burning woody biomass (wood pellets) and the forests it took to produce them was actually a viable climate-mitigation strategy, I posed a question to Timmermans in a room packed with European journalist. My question was something like: A top EU priority is accuracy in carbon accounting, yet EU policy promotes the burning of biomass in which emissions go uncounted at the smokestack. Is this carbon accounting discrepancy something you’re concerned about?

After a pause that led me to think he planned to ignore my question, he provided, to me, a surprising answer: Yes, he was concerned. The science on biomass has changed in recent years, he said. The EU needed to make sure it wasn’t doing more harm than good when it came to biomass-for-energy. This policy would be revisited under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive in 2021.

Pretty big story. My editor agreed. And we put Timmermans on the record globally saying, for the first time, that biomass wasn’t an unquestioned, common-sense, climate-friendly substitute for coal — which is most definitely is not.

This story is in some ways a follow up to that December 2019 story. The pressure on Timmermans has been intense for nearly two years — from all sides: anti-biomass advocates, EU countries with trees to clear, a rapidly growing, multibillion-dollar biomass industry. Timmermans, as my story illustrates, has learned a great deal about the science of biomass, its impact on forests and carbon neutrality. But as the European Commission tries to decide if it will regulate biomass to protect forests and perhaps increase accuracy in carbon emissions accounting, Timmermans remains on the fence about which way he will push his European colleagues.

Frans Timmermans (center) on a panel at COP25 in 2019. Image by Justin Catanoso.

Environment  Mongabay: Illegal clearing for agriculture is driving tropical deforestation: Report

An expanding oil palm plantation abuts rainforest in Sabah, Malaysia. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.
An expanding oil palm plantation abuts rainforest in Sabah, Malaysia. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Forest Trends is an NGO I’ve been familiar with for a number of years, primarily through a deputy director, Gena Gammie, who lives in Lima and heads up water conservation initiatives there. I’ve interviewed Michael Jenkins, the founder and CEO, several times and have always found him knowledgeable and candid — no nonsense, like Phil Duffy at Woodwell Climate Research Center. So when Forest Trends released a major new report on illegal deforestation connected to agriculture commodities, I knew we had a for a solid story for Mongabay. The story linked here. Also, Mongabay produced a short, subtitled video of my story for social media, linked here.

An excerpt: “In its report, Illicit Harvest, Complicit Goods, NGO Forest Trends found that at least 69% of tropical forests cleared for agricultural activities such as ranching and farmland between 2013 and 2019 was done in violation of national laws and regulations. The actual amount of illegally deforested land is immense during that period – 31.7 million hectares, or an area roughly the size of Norway.

“The report reveals the climate impact of this illegal agro-conversion is equally significant, making up 42% of greenhouse gas emissions of all tropical deforestation. The related emissions total of 2.7 gigatons of CO2 annually during the seven-year period is more than India’s fossil fuel emissions in 2018. The study notes that if tropical deforestation emissions tied to commercial agriculture were a country, it would rank third behind China and the U.S.”

The problem only gets worse year by year — even as climate and national leaders stress that there were few things more important in curbing global warming and protecting biodiversity than dramatically reducing deforestation — especially in places where it’s already illegal. The issue will need to be a high priority at the United Nations climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021.

Special thanks to Mongabay’s Morgan Erickson-Davis for her careful edit.

A fire burns in Sumatra, Indonesia. These fires are generally started by slash-and-burn clearing to turn forests into crop fields. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.
A fire burns in Sumatra, Indonesia. Fires here are often started by slash-and-burn clearing to turn forests into farmland. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Environment  Mongabay: Leaders make bold climate pledges, but is it “all just smoke and mirrors?’: Critics

U.S. President Joe Biden at the Leaders Summit on Climate. Image courtesy of the White House.

Having covered six United Nations climate summits, dating back to Lima, Peru, in 2014, I am all too familiar with the ambitious promises of climate action and the unified chorus of environmental-protection support from world leaders (until Trump). And then, of course, as my previous story out of British Columbia illustrates, nothing — a near-total lack of political will to prioritize nature, forests and biodiversity over anything resembling sacrifice or pushback against polluting industries and forestry interests.

President Joe Biden appears to be trying to change that. He has sent constant signals that he and his entire government intend to act on climate change in a broad and coordinated way not only to reassert US leadership after the reckless and embarrassing Trump years, but because of the science: we have less than 10 years to dramatically decarbonize G-20 economies to stave off the climate crisis that worsens every day, according to multiple reports from the International Panel on Climate Change.

In my first breaking news story since COP25 in Madrid in December 2019, I cover Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate and address the gap between climate-action promises made by the US, China, the UK, EU and others, and what still stands in the way of desperately needed real action. The Eurasia Review republished my story.

As Dave McGlinchey of the Woodwell Climate Research Center told me: “This summit could be a critical turning point in our fight against climate change, but we have seen ambitious goals before and we have seen them fall flat. Today’s commitments must be followed with effective implementation, and with transparent reporting and accurate carbon accounting.”

Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to increase his country’s carbon-reduction goals. But, as the leader of the British Columbia Green Party told me: “I know there is this perception of Canada and BC as progressive on climate and the environment, but we are not. We are massively subsidizing the oil and gas industry at the federal and provincial level…”

Environment  Mongabay: With British Columbia’s last old-growth at risk, government falters: Critics

Anzac Valley clear cuts in British Columbia’s boreal rainforest. What you see was once completely forested. Image by Taylor Roades courtesy of Stand.earth.

In this story, I revisit a part of the world I wrote about last JuneBritish Columbia, its rare and vanishing towering old-growth forests in coastal and interior rainforests, and a progressive government’s promises to protect and preserve much of what’s left. Spoiler alert: it’s not.

“I know what they say [in the National Democratic Party], but I don’t know what this government’s long-term vision is for forestry,” Sonia Furstenau, BC’s Green Party leader, told me in an hour-long interview. “They are adhering to the status quo that is giving us the same outcomes we’ve had for decades. I was on the finance committee a few years ago. I spent a lot of time in small planes flying over the province. When you fly over British Columbia, it is a landscape of devastation. It’s heart-wrenching to see it from the sky, just how little intact forest there is left.”

My in-depth story reveals the sentiments some the top players in this environmental saga of unfilled political promises — leading forestry experts, political insiders, even a statement to Mongabay from BC’s forestry minister. It all adds up to an inescapable conclusion: despite the NDP adopting paradigm-shifting recommendations it commissioned in 2020, the majority government is still prioritizing logging and a growing wood-pellet industry over some of the last great old-growth forests, rare ecosystems and endangered species in North America.

As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upped his nation’s carbon-reduction ambition under the Paris Agreement, he will find it increasingly difficult to meet those goals by 2030 as his country’s most powerful carbon sinks are felled for lumber and wood pellets to be burned overseas in power plants.

British Columbia’s remaining old-growth forests aren’t only valuable for the carbon storage they provide; they are also cherished for their uniqueness, the biodiversity they harbor, and the awe they inspire. Image by Jakob Dulisse.

Environment  Mongabay: Dutch to limit forest biomass subsidies, possibly signaling EU sea change

he Netherlands is known for its photogenic windmills. But when it comes to renewable energy, wind accounts for only 23% of the country’s mix compared to 61% of renewable energy from burning biomass in coal-fired power plants.* The vast majority of Dutch energy still comes from burning oil, natural gas and coal. Photo credit: Ignacio Ferre on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND.

This story of mine from The Netherlands appears to illustrate a small crack in the near-universal political support for biomass usage in the European Union. Is it a harbinger of more change in biomass policy as the EU moves in June 2021 to consider revisions to its Renewable Energy Directive II?

For a small country, just 17.3 million people, The Netherlands holds an outsized influence in the EU, and the new make up of its parliament (national elections were held March 17, 2021) could determine the fate of biomass subsidies in a country that is one of the largest importers of wood pellets from the US Southeast.

Small victories like this are celebrated by environmentalists, but the biomass industry continues to grow rapidly in scale and revenue. For all the science that illustrates the importance of keeping forests intact, and how burning wood pellets is more polluting than burning coal, the industry presses a different point of view and interpretation of the science that continues to hold sway with policy makers. Consider this response in my story from the president of the World Bioenergy Association:

“My take on the Dutch decision is that it is as wrong and poorly informed as the Brexit decision in the U.K.,” said Christian Rakos, responding from Austria. “It is based on campaigns that have not told the truth. The fact is, the Netherlands is currently among the worst-performing countries in Europe when it comes to renewable energy use and this [biomass] decision will further deteriorate its performance in terms of climate protection.”

He added: “Our position is to do everything possible to ensure [forest] sustainability, but to keep in mind that climate change is the greatest threat to ecosystems at present, and that it will be impossible to mitigate it without extensive use of bioenergy.”

Rakos is correct about The Netherlands and renewable energy usage. It still gets as much as 90 percent of its energy from fossil fuels. But most of its “renewable” energy comes from burning wood. As leading biomass expert Mary Booth told me: “We’re not going to burn our way out of the climate crisis.”

Environment  Mongabay: 500+ experts call on world’s nations to not burn forests to make energy

A forest biomass plant in the U.S. Southeast. The industry insists it does not use healthy, whole trees for wood pellet production, using instead crooked, diseased trees or lumber waste, tree tops and woody residue. This photo tells a far different story. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

A new administration in the White House, one committed to climate mitigation policies across the federal bureaucracy in ways never seen before, has encouraged international environmentalists to press for changes to policies that they see as detrimental to nature, ecosystems and climate solutions in the midst of a worsening climate crisis.

In this story, I report on a letter sent directly to President Joe Biden as well as leaders of the EU and Japan to rethink policies that encourage deforestation in the US Southeast, western Canada and Eastern Europe in order to produce wood pellets to be burned for energy and heat instead of coal. These wood pellets are burned primarily in the European Union and United Kingdom. Japan and South Korea are also moving to this energy source.

As I’ve been reporting for years on this issue, biomass — including wood — is defined as a carbon neutral energy source on par with zero carbon wind and solar under the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. This definition has been included in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive. In both, the smokestack emissions from biomass are not reported in a country’s emissions accounting under the Paris Agreement.

In other words, these countries are still polluting, but on paper, it appears that their emissions are coming down, depending on how much biomass is part of the their overall energy mix. In the EU and UK, it’s around 10-15 percent. As the scientists who signed the February 11 letter stressed, and as my sources confirmed, these policies are not climate solutions. They are actually making the problem worse by both adding to deforestation and not reporting the actual pollution they are putting into the air.

Environment  Mongabay Newscast: Are biomass and hydropower ‘false’ climate solutions?

A handful of biomass, prior to being turned into wood pellets. Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Mike Gaworecki has done a great job hosting the Mongabay Newscast for years. He’s invited me on the program several times, including on Feb. 10, 2021 with this episode. Here, he talks with me about the story and issue I’ve been covering since spring 2018 along with an eco-warrior from North Macedonia who is an expert is the hazards of hydropower. Mike described the episode like this:

On this episode of the Mongabay Newscast, we look at two energy-related technologies that are being promoted as climate solutions, biomass and hydropower, which might have unintended consequences that hamper their ability to supply clean energy and thus might not be sustainable solutions at all.

Our first guest is Justin Catanoso, a professor at Wake Forest University and long-time Mongabay correspondent. Catanoso tells us about the loopholes in renewable energy policies that have allowed the biomass industry to flourish under the guise of “carbon neutrality,” even though the burning of biomass for energy releases more carbon emissions than burning coal.

We also speak with Ana Colovic Lesoska, a biologist by training who founded the Eko-Svest Center For Environmental Research in North Macedonia. Colovic Lesoska was instrumental in shutting down two large hydropower projects in her country’s Mavrovo National Park, but there are still more than 3,000 new hydropower projects proposed in the Balkans. She tells us why hydropower is being adopted by Balkan countries and whether or not hydropower can be a climate solution at any scale.

A pair of Balkan lynxes. Ana Colovic Lesoska helped stop two large hydroelectric dams from being built in North Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park, which provides important habitat for the Balkan lynx. Photo by Goldman Environmental Prize.