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.
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.
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. It’s 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.
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.”
In this story, I revisit a part of the world I wrote about last June — British 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.
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.”
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.
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.
Here’s how this story came about. In November 2019, I interviewed Michael Regan, then secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, following his appearance on a panel at Wake Forest University, where I am on the faculty. My colleague Stan Meiburg, who heads our graduate program in sustainability and retired from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 as deputy administrator after 39 years at the agency, helped me secure 30 minutes with Regan.
At the time, I was part of a three-reporter team working on a series of stories for The News & Observer of Raleighabout the impact of the biomass industry on North Carolina’s forests and air quality. A generous grant from the Pulitzer Center underwrote the project. Anyway, Regan was surprising blunt in his criticism of woody biomass as an energy source and sided with the science that concluded that burning biomass was not carbon neutral. Those views had already been translated into North Carolina policy under the state’s Clean Energy Plan.
When President Biden nominated Regan as his new EPA administrator, I reviewed a transcript of my interview with him, understood from previous reporting that biomass was an unsettled issue at EPA, and thought Mongabay readers would be want to know where he unambiguously stands on this issue. My editor, Glenn Scherer, agreed. I added additional reporting and interviews, and we got the story posted.
Update: In a bipartisan vote and support from both Republican senators from North Carolina, Regan won easy Senate-approval to this cabinet position in early March 2021. He becomes the first Black male to head the EPA.
This story here came to me in November as a tip from a source in Scotland who is familiar with my reporting on the growth of the biomass industry for energy production. This one has a new twist in that it doesn’t focus on wood pellets for energy, but rather soy for biofuels — in a part of the world rarely discussed but critical in size and scope for biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation — French Guiana.
With lots of research reports, government documents and exceptional sources in both Paris and Cayenne, French Guiana, the story started to take shape. With a population of just 300,000 almost entirely along it’s northern coast, French Guiana is in need of expanding and upgrading its energy system from diesel-powered plants to renewables. The problem, however, is the France wants the department to grow its own soy — the most common source for biofuel — to power five new energy stations. To grow enough soy would require a staggering amount of Amazon jungle to be clearcut — by one estimate, an area three times the square miles of New York City.
My story details what’s at stake with this unusual proposed policy change for a country and president, Emmanuel Macron, recognized for their sensitivity to climate action and ecosystem protections. Activists in French Guiana are mobilizing to stop the policy proposals, preserve their densely forested department (which is the size of Indiana) and promote true renewable energy sources like expanded wind and solar installations.