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.
This story herebegan 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.
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.
This storycame up quickly, was reported in 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 the 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.
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.
“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?”
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. 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.
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.