Author Archives: Justin Catanoso

Environment  Mongabay: EU Parliament’s Environment Committee urges scale back of biomass burning

Fenna Swart, the campaign manager for the Dutch Clean Air Committee, holds a bag of wood pellets during a protest outside the building where EU Commissioners regularly meet in Brussels. Image by Daniel Djamo.

Forest advocates in Europe, led by Fenna Swart and Maarten Visschers of The Netherlands, have lobbied against the growing use of biomass across the continent for several years now. They’ve been joined by a host of NGOs from the United Kingdom to the Baltic states, all raising public opposition to wood-burning-for-energy-and-heat. Citizen petitions have been signed by the hundreds of thousands.

Collectively, though, their efforts, combined with forest ecologists using their science to speak up as well, hasn’t made a dent in European Union biomass policy. This story explains, however, that among the Environment Committee of the European Parliament, there is a now majority of members who have been persuaded enough to recommend unprecedented policy changes to biomass usage under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, RED.

As I note in my story, forest advocates are cautiously optimistic and highly skeptical. Another parliament committee can derail the recommendations. The Russian war with Ukraine, and the rush to stop the flow of Russian fossil fuels to Europe, complicates matters. And the most influential climate politician in the EU, Frans Timmersmans of The Netherlands, still backs biomass as the primary way for the EU to stop burning coal, as it is legally mandated to do. A final decision is expected in September 2022.

Forest advocates protest against Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s vice president and its leader on climate policy. before a ceremony on May 12 in The Netherlands where he was honored with a Nijmegen Peace Prize, a high European honor. The banner reads: “Frans Timmermans protect our forests! #StopBiomass Combustion.” Image by Cain Scorselo, Dutch Clean Air Committee.

Environment  Mongabay: Missing the emissions for the trees: Biomass burning booms in East Asia

The Hadong power plant in South Korea co-fires coal with woody biomass, allowing it to claim it is reducing emissions under the UN loophole.
The Hadong power plant in South Korea co-fires coal with woody biomass, allowing it to claim it is reducing emissions under a carbon accounting loophole. Photo courtesy of Solutions for Our Climate.

This story here began about a year ago with an email from Roger Smith, a forest advocate for the NGO Mighty Earth in Tokyo, Japan. He had been following my biomass coverage focusing on the United Kingdom, Europe, Southeastern United States and British Columbia, and wanted me to know that biomass energy was growing in Japan. Would I write about it?

The short answer was yes. Roger and I spoke for more than an hour not long after he reached out. I intended to do the story during COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. But other stories piled up, time flew by, and even though I met the chief of staff of Japan’s energy minister, who promised to arrange an interview — after the climate summit — it didn’t happen. Fortunately, an American freelance journalist in Japan, Annelise Gisebert, pitched a biomass story to Mongabay, and my editor Glenn Scherer saw an opportunity for us work together.

It took more than a month of reporting, worked in around classes and grading, and a 13-hour time difference for Annelise and me to arrange interviews and talk about our reporting. But we finally compiled the information we needed for the first in-depth, Asia-focused stories on biomass that have been written at Mongabay. Annelise’s story, linked here, ran a week after mine.

Essentially, I wrote about the demand side for biomass in Japan and South Korea, while Annelise focused on where all the additional wood is coming from to meet Asian demand. What’s clear is that as both countries look to generate more energy from wood, more trees from intact forests will fall around the world at the very time we can least afford to lose their ecosystem services during this escalating climate crisis.

My story was translated into Chinese. Here’s the Chinese language link.

Forest advocates have been arguing for years that burning wood for energy on an industrial scale poses a host of environmental threats while undermining climate action.
Forest advocates have been arguing for years that burning wood for energy on an industrial scale poses a host of environmental threats while undermining climate action; these include increased deforestation, elevated carbon emissions, loss of carbon sequestration capacity, and adverse biodiversity impacts. Image via Max Pixel.

Environment  Mongabay: Activists vow to take EU to court to fight its forest biomass policies

In mid-November, at the conclusion of the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, forest advocates from across Europe gathered in Brussels outside the EU headquarters to protest the increasing use of wood pellets for energy instead of zero-carbon renewables such as wind and solar power. Photo courtesy of Daniel Djamo.

Since 2018, when I first began writing stories related to biomass, I’ve covered the issue and story from a variety of angles. Most have focused on efforts by forest advocates, ecologists and climate scientists to use a growing stack of peer-reviewed science to impress upon policymakers, especially in the European Union and United Kingdom, that replacing coal with wood — in the form of pellets, chips or other forms of biomass — is not a viable climate solution and is actually driving up carbon emissions — the very thing that needs to be reversed to slow the rate of global warming. Some stories have simply focused on the unparalleled success of the wood pellet industry, its accelerating growth and profits, and the fact that it makes up 60 percent of “renewable” energy in Europe, not zero-carbon wind, solar or nuclear.

The forest advocates are losing this battle — badly. It’s not even close. State subsidies to burn wood instead of coal reach into the billions. Profits are growing. New markets are ramping up in Asia. And intact forests — the first line of defense in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — are falling in greater acreage for wood pellets in the Southeastern United States, British Columbia, Eastern Europe and soon Vietnam.

This story, posted March 2022, follows up on a story I wrote from Glasgow in November 2021 at COP26: the new front in climate action is litigation. Forest advocates, with a lawsuit prepared, are now hoping for access to the European Court in Luxembourg as a way of altering EU policy toward biomass to reduce its usage and provide more protection for the world’s forests. My story is reported from a variety of angles which explain both the opportunities and obstacles to this approach, and a new study that breaks new ground on the long-term impact of the growing demand for wood pellets for energy and heat.

A collage of studies over the years regarding biomass and its impacts ¬– including the study cited in this Mongabay story. Image by Justin Catanoso.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: Hope old and new – COP26 focused on two largely unsung climate solutions

At the Climate Action Center at the Scottish Event Center in Glasgow, the picture-worthy sign #COP26 was filled with tropical plants. Every summit, attendees make sure to have their photo taken in front of the sign (including me).

At the conclusion of every UN climate summit I’ve covered since Paris in 2015, I’ve written a story that summarizes the highlights (few) and disappointments (many) in a kind of post-COP analysis. Because of the massive global media attention COP26 drew (nearly 4,000 credentialed journalists), that story was largely written by others before I landed back in North Carolina.

Instead, with this final story from COP26, I followed an idea that came to me during my return flight home. I decided to focus on what seemed to me to be two significant positive developments from a climate summit that was declared a failure before it even started. Those two elements — one old and easily grasped, the other new and technologically futuristic — could turn out to be climate game changers in the decades ahead. That is, of course, if they receive the international support and billions in funding required to enable both to, in one case flourish, and in the other, reach proof of concept on a global scale.

Let’s be clear. The coordinated effort to save the planet by holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial times has virtually no chance of succeeding without these efforts I write about, in combination with accelerated efforts to decarbonize industrial economies and halt deforestation and biodiversity loss in the world’s great forests. G-20 leaders have simply wasted too many decades making problems worse for any shortcuts or easy fixes to this existential climate crisis.

This photo collage that I took in my home office before leaving for Glasgow seems a fitting parting shot for my final story from COP26. Next year’s meeting, COP27, is planned for Cairo, Egypt.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: ‘Standing with your feet in the water’: COP26 struggles to succeed

With Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg leading protests both Friday and Saturday (Nov. 5-6, 2021) through the streets of central Glasgow, tens of thousands of people, mostly young people from around the world, mocked the proceedings of COP26, demanded “real” leadership, and didn’t let up even in driving wind and rain. The protests continued every day of the summit.

On Friday, November 12, I decided to take the morning off from COP26 to see a bit of Glasgow — the immense 12th-Glasgow Cathredral that reformationist John Knox changed from Catholic to Protestant, and the campus of the University of Glasgow, which I heard was the setting for Harry Potter movies. It wasn’t, but it could’ve been.

My goal on the last afternoon of official negotiations was to simply attend press conferences, track the shifting language in the latest draft of the Glasgow accords and Paris Agreement rulebook, and prepare for the climate summit wrap up I would write once I returned home to the U.S. I had no plans to write this story.

But sometimes luck intervenes and directs you to a front row seat to history. After getting into the venue, I noticed a line of people filing into the main plenary hall, called Cairn Gorm. It wasn’t long before I realized that this could be, in borrowing from Hamilton, ‘the room where it happened.’ When U.S. climate envoy John Kerry walked right in front of me on his way to his seat, and I then heard COP26 President Alok Sharma of Great Britain call the hastily called meeting of 196 nations “our collective moment in history,” I knew I had one last story to write from Glasgow.

The tension, the emotions, the high-stakes pressure, the frustration, the recognition of a race against time in rescuing the planet from the worst ravages of human-caused climate change infused grand, furious and pleading messages by delegates from every nation. What a story.

EU lead negotiator Frans Timmermans showed the assemblage a photo of his 1-year-old grandson during his comments. Together, he said, the leaders at COP26 could assure Chase’s healthy future or assure a time when he “would be in a fight with other human beings for food and water.” The plenary erupted in applause as he thundered: “This is personal! This is not political.”

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26 – Are climate declarations and emission reduction pledges legally binding?

Climate Action Center at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. So many pledges and promises made at these annual summits, so many pledges unfilled and promises broken. What’s an ailing planet to do? File a lawsuit, that’s what.

There has long been a general sense that the voluntary, nonbinding nature of the Paris Agreement was a fatal flaw, a way for major polluters to sign their names to carbon-reduction pledges they had no intention of ever honoring.

Well, maybe. Maybe not.

In a story here that fell into my lap and which my ever-skeptical editor Glenn Schererurged me to pursue, I learned that the new frontier in climate action isn’t in pledges and promises, but in litigation. Just ask Royal Dutch Shell, a corporate giant in The Netherlands which a national court ruled was not doing enough to reduce its own carbon footprint, thus keeping the country from meeting its own reduction targets under Paris. Promises, meet legal enforcement. Shell is not a signatory of Paris, but was successfully held liable just the same, as my story explains.

This story focuses on a couple of attorneys who were active and visible during this climate summit, one of whom reminded me of a male, eco-crusading Erin Brockovich. Wake Forest law school professor John Knox, my colleague and an expert in international climate litigation, verified what I was learning in Glasgow, as did a lead attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in which my sister-in-law Stephanie Parent, an Oregon-based environmental attorney herself, put me in touch.

A COP26 march in Sheffield, England. In 2015, in Paris, and at all COP summits, protestors who say that the common people are those most impacted by climate change have been left to march outside, while grave decisions, or the lack of them, were pursued inside. Photo credit: Tim Dennell on Visualhunt.com

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26: E.U. is committed to forest biomass burning to cut fossil fuel use

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president (right), speaks during the COP26 press conference. E.U. minister Andrej Viziak of Slovenia is on left.

The last time I got to question Frans Timmermans, the executive vice president of the European Commission and easily the most influential politician in the EU, was at COP25 in Madrid, Spain, in December 2019, just weeks before the pandemic took hold. It was the last day of a dismal summit. I asked him about the future of biomass in the EU, and his answer was so surprising that it led to a story that quite literally stunned anti-biomass activists around from the US to Belgium to Australia.

In this story, my third from Glasgow, I got to question Timmermans again. This time, his answer was far more predictable, and to those same anti-biomass advocates, an enormous disappointment. I did get more than one question, though, as I asked Mr. Timmermans if he could talk further after the 30-minute EU press conference, which took place at exactly the same time former US President Barack Obama was addressing a packed plenary hall a few hundred yards away.

Aside from a range of reactions from forest defenders around the globe, I also received a detailed and thoughtful response from Christian Rakos of Vienna, Austria, president of the World Bioenergy Association. Rakos surprised me by offering an open dialogue with those who oppose everything about the industry he represents. I included it in my story and he reiterated his interest during a 90-minute meeting I had with him over Italian beer at the summit venue. Later, post-COP26, at dinner in Amsterdam with the EU’s leading biomass opponent, Fenna Swart, I mentioned to her Rakos’ interest in talking with her — even volunteering to travel to Holland to meet in person.

Swart and Rakos exchanged emails and a meeting between them is planned in Amsterdam.

Christian Rakos, president of the World Bioenergy Association, which is based in Stockholm. The EU burns an estimated 31 million metric tons of woody biomass annually for energy and heat. Rakos believes this burning of wood is far better than burning coal as well as environmentally sustainable — in the EU. His is less familiar with the industry’s impact on forests in the Southeastern U.S. and British Columbia.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26 – Indigenous leaders share hopes and concerns towards pledges made at COP26

Torbjørn Gjefsen of Rainforest Foundation Norway, writing in my notebook, makes sure the spelling of Joseph Itongwa’s name and tribal association are correct for my story. Joseph spoke French through a remarkable interpreter who was on the phone he is holding.

A few days before leaving for Glasgow and COP26, I had a Zoom call with Torbjørn Gjefsen of Rainforest Foundation Norway in Oslo. We spoke at length about the issues he and his group are most focused on: promoting and supporting indigenous rights in tropical countries around the world. He wanted me to do a story from the climate summit; he was pushing on an open door. Here’s why I was eager to write this story.

In September 2018, I covered the Climate Action Summit in San Francisco organized by then California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mongabay wanted me there primary to write about an issue then largely underreported and little recognized: that if tropical countries were serious about preventing deforestation and meeting their carbon reduction pledges under the Paris Agreement, they had no better means of doing both than by returning land tenure and civil rights back to the Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) who have occupied the land, as one tribal leader told me, “since time immemorial.”

Years of meticulous scientific research comparing places where rights had been returned to those where IPLCs were still largely marginalized demonstrated the impact of doing the right thing by nature and humanity.

In Glasgow, during my first two days on site at the Scottish Events Center at the end of the summit’s first week, Torbjørn arranged for me to interview, through translators, Indigenous leaders from Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia. It was an honor to talk with each one of them and share their stories at a summit where for the first time their presence was met with praise, recognition and billions in funding for the important role they can play in their home countries in climate mitigation.

As my story explains, the momentum tribal leaders felt in Glasgow will only translate into action if the leaders of those countries allow it. DRC? Yes. Brazil and Indonesia? Not until there are regime changes.

This is the president of Indonesia. As my story explains, he’s not much better than the autocratic maniac, Jair Bolsonaro, who has terrorized Indigenous peoples in Brazil since taking office in 2017. Joko Widodo has broken every promise to return land and rights to the largest Indigenous group on earth since his re-election in 2020. Instead, deforestation to make room for oil palm plantations worsens.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26 – As carbon emissions rise unabated, scientists eye a methane removal fix

A gas flare at an oil refinery.
One of the leading causes of methane emissions is flaring like this done at facilities drilling for natural gas.

I arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, for my seventh United Nations climate summit on Friday, November 5, my birthday. I celebrated by self-administering a Covid-19 test in my AirBnB apartment, reporting the negative result to the National Scottish Health Service, then hailing a taxi to the venue. There, after weaving my way through unusually mobbed corridors of masked people from around the world, I met up, as planned, with Daphne Wysham, chief executive of Methane Action, for this story, which posted the following Monday.

Over the course of a half day that Friday and most of Saturday, I climbed the learning curve regarding methane as a greenhouse gas, how much more potent in its heat-trapping capacity it is than carbon dioxide, and why it only lasts in the atmosphere for 10-12 years, compared to centuries for CO2. Those details alone make methane a ripe target for climate action. In fact, more than 100 nations signed a declaration before I arrived in Scotland to reduce their own methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. It’s far from enough, which is where Methane Action comes in.

Daphne was eager to talk not only because she has a remarkable story to tell, but also because she and I met in Port Townsend, Washington, last July when I was reporting on the value of old-growth trees in temperate rainforests while in Washington state. Her husband John Talbert, a forest ecologist, was one of my sources. I learned just enough about Daphne’s work to know I wanted to follow up.

This is one of the more surprising stories I’ve reported and written at a climate summit. It’s actually hopeful, I realized, as I slowly grasped how engineered methods of methane oxidation — if proven in the lab and then successfully applied at a global scale — could turn out to be the most effective way of slowing global warming in the short term. It also holds the hard-to-believe potential of actually bringing about global cooling in a few decades. My story provides the details, with all the necessary caveats.

Daphne Wysham, chief executive of Methane Action (left), with Ed Gemmel of the group Scientists Warning Europe, and Peter Wadhams, a climate scientist and methane researcher at the University of Turin, Italy, at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Image courtesy of Daphne Wysham.

.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26 Glasgow Declaration: Salvation or threat to Earth’s forests?

Deforestation in West Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia on land likely to be converted to oil palm plantation. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

I wrote my second story for COP26, the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, while I was still in North Carolina. The first two days of the summit were attended by heads of state from around the world, eager to show some kind of eagerness toward climate action. The result here was the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by the U.S as well as more than 100 other countries. The goal — eliminating deforestation by 2030.

This declaration dovetailed well with my first story, which highlighted the importance of nature-based solutions in fighting climate change, and how deforestation was undermining nature’s ability to sequester carbon and provide the ecosystems services it has always provided to slow the rate of warming.

Backed by $19 billion in funding to assist in reducing deforestation and promoting Indigenous land tenure, it even sounds pretty good. As I wrote: The Glasgow signees, the declaration says, “emphasize the critical and interdependent roles of forests of all types, biodiversity and sustainable land use in enabling the world to meet its sustainable development goals; to help achieve a balance between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and removal by sinks; to adapt to climate change; and to maintain other ecosystem services.”

But it’s what’s not in the declaration that not only weakens it, but according to a variety of my sources, implicitly encourages logging forests for timber and pellets so long as they are replaced with what is usually monoculture tree plantations that lack biodiversity, sequester little carbon and are harvested on a regular cycle. My story looks at both the positive and suspect aspects of a declaration whose primary goal is truly needed.