Category Archives: Environment

Environment  Mongabay: New study identifies mature forests on U.S. federal lands ripe for protection

Redwood trees in California. Iconic species including redwoods and giant sequoias are fairly well protected. But the new study calls for a wide range of mature and old-growth forests on federal lands to become fully protected. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala of Wild-Heritage in Oregon has been eager to produce high-quality, verifiable maps of remaining intact, mature and old-growth forests across the continental United States. He and I have been discussing the potential for such mapping to help create what he and colleague Bev Law of Oregon State call a Strategic Carbon Reserve, akin the the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that presidents call upon when gas prices spike or OPEC suppliers manipulate global oil supplies.

The carbon reserve would act as a protected carbon sink in the US that would remain intact, biodiverse and capable of continuing — and even expanding over time — its capacity to sequester greenhouse gases to help slow the rate of global warming. This story here describes the outcome of a new study (October 2022) in which DellaSala teamed with a group of forest ecologists to produce the first ever coast-to-coast mapping of such valuable, vulnerable forests.

President Biden in April 2022 requested similar mapping from his departments of Interior and Agriculture for the purpose to protecting more forests on federal land to help him meet his Paris Agreement GHG-reduction goals by 2030. DellaSala’s study will serve as a baseline comparison in April 2023 when the federal maps are due to make sure timber interests and forestry corporations don’t pressure the U.S. agencies to produce maps more favorable to logging than conservation.

An expanse of legally clearcut forest in northwest Washington state. While national park forests are fully protected, just 24% of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management forests are fully protected, with the rest at various levels of risk. I took this photo just outside fully protected Olympic National Park in July 2022.

Environment  Mongabay: British Columbia delays promised protections as old growth keeps falling

Torrance Coste counts the rings on a fallen old-growth cedar
Torrance Coste counts the rings on a fallen old-growth cedar in the Upper Caycuse Valley. He estimated the age of the harvested tree at 500 years or more. Image by Justin Catanoso.

In summer of 2021, during a trip to the Pacific Northwest, I had hoped to continue my coverage of British Columbia’s at-risk old growth forests. But Covid-19 restrictions kept me from entering Canada. In July 2022, with the border re-opened, I was able to report this story from the field in the outback of Vancouver Island’s wooded and extensively harvested remote outback.

What I observed was both staggering and disheartening — large blocks of old-growth forests that should have been protected from logging, given a policy promise in 2020 by BC’s majority party, were being clearcut throughout southern Vancouver Island. Logging rushed to take down ancient giants while they still could. Torrance Coste, a BC forest campaigner, was my tour guide that day, taking me to settings of environmental degradation and decimation that few BC residents, let alone legislators, ever seen. They should. Torrance is also seen in a short video embedded in the story in which he explains the difference between natural forests designed by nature and monoculture tree farms planted by logging companies.

The story is thorough and nuanced with politics, environmental science and the treatment of Indigenous peoples overlapping; I appreciate my editor Glenn Scherer giving me the space I needed to tell the full story. As a key source told me in the BC capital of Victoria:

“Certain politicians say, ‘Canada is just 1% of global emissions; it doesn’t matter what we do. But if we protect our at-risk old growth, we can be 10% of the global solution. Why don’t we want to be the beacon of what’s possible? Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Clearcut logging in the Anzac Valley
Clearcut logging in the Anzac Valley, part of the boreal rainforest near Prince George, British Columbia. Image by Taylor Roades courtesy of Stand.earth.

Environment  Mongabay: EU votes to keep woody biomass as renewable energy, ignores climate risk

In addition to forest loss, wood pelletization uses significant energy in the transport of logs harvested in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere, in the processing of wood to make the pellets, and for transportation overseas to the EU where the pellets are burned. Image by #ODF at Visualhunt.com

This story follows up on a one I wrote last spring (2022) regarding the negotiations around possible revisions to the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which is evaluated every three years. Of peak interest has been whether members of parliament would change their view toward the continent’s use of woody biomass for heat and energy and its impact on global forests.

Biomass accounts for more than 60 percent of the EU’s renewable energy portfolio — but legions of scientists continue to argue there is nothing renewable about burning biomass, at least at it compares to zero-carbon wind and solar.

While parliamentary committees for the first time recommended changes in subsidies for woody biomass and increased protections for Europe’s forests — which provide the bulk of the EU’s pellet production — the outcome appears far different. Yes, it calls for phasing down of subsidies, estimated at $13 billion annually. It also calls for protection of natural forests, saying only lumber residue and damaged trees can be used for pellets. But forests advocates explained to me that the amendments that were approved are vague enough to not change EU woody biomass consumption — or the emissions they produce — at least for the next three years.

This view was essentially supported by a statement by US-based Enviva, the world’s largest pellet maker, that hailed the RED amendments as a victory for the bioenergy industry.

Here’s the big thing: an amendment that would declassify woody biomass as a renewable energy source, on par with wind and solar (a well-reported error that began with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) was rejected. This, too, was cheered by the bioenergy industry.

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.

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 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.

The citizen-supported journalism site WhoWhatWhy republished my story here.

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.