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.
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.
This multimedia story — the most complex of any I’ve written for Mongabay — was months in the making. In late spring, my editor Glenn Scherer and I talked about a kind of global supply-and-demand story regarding the biomass industry. In early June, I created a Google alert for “biomass” and “wood pellets” and started gathering links to stories about the industry. It became obvious after a few weeks that despite this incessant lobbying of scientists and NGOs, despite mountains of science over a decade demonstrating that biomass is not carbon neutral like wind and solar and should not have the same legal designation, despite the loss of so many badly needed carbon-sequestering forests in the US, Canada, Russia, Eastern Europe and now Asia, the biomass industry is only growing — rapidly — in size, scale, profitability and as a natural offshoot, political influence. All this at a time when climate change is only accelerating.
To tell this story, Glenn and I recognized we needed more than a long, involved narrative — though I produced one. We needed visuals: interactive graphics, photographs, another video produced by the super-talented Manon Verchot. It’s all here. Including this YouTube video. It’s a compelling package and a rather grim reality. There is a potential bright spot in The Netherlands where public support against biomass for energy and heat is high, and the Dutch government — a major user of biomass instead of coal — has been urged by an independent advisory commission to phase out its use of biomass. Some advocates hope that if the Dutch government acts, other EU nations may just follow suit.
In the meantime, the biomass industry continues to pile up whole trees for pelletizing along with record profits.
This story came to me directly as a result of my coverage of the biomass-for-energy story over the past two years. Biofuelwatch, an environmental group, had organized a global group of NGOs to appeal to the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, to pull its 5 percent stake in the world’s largest energy-generating plant using wood pellets. Millions of tons of pellets are produced annually largely Southeastern US forests.
The underlying goal? If the world is going to dramatically reduce its use of fossil fuels, large investment companies like BlackRock need to divest hundreds of billions of dollars in oil, gas, coal and biomass, and ramp up investment in genuine zero-carbon wind and solar energy.
The company in question is one of I’ve about often; Drax, the United Kingdom’s largest energy provider. I interviewed its CEO at COP25 in Madrid, Spain, in mid-December in a fairly contentious encounter following a presentation in which no questions from the audience were allowed.
Thanks to Mongabay editor Morgan Erikson-Davis for her careful attention to detail. And thanks to my Mongabay colleague Erik Hoffner for arranging for the story to be republished here with the environmental news site Eco-Business.
In April, Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center, called me to offer an opportunity: the center had received a substantial grant to support local newspaper journalism. He wanted to know if I had a story or project in mind that would be valuable to a publication in North Carolina.
I briefly told Jon about the stories I had been writing for Mongabay for well over a year regarding the growing use of wood pellets in coal-fired energy plants in the United Kingdom and the European Union, the loophole in carbon accounting policy that allowed these enormous emissions to go uncounted (thus threatening to undermine the goal of the Paris Agreement), and to his interest, that the majority of these wood pellets were coming from North Carolina forests — millions of tons per year. Morever, the vast majority of North Carolinians, including legislators and policymakers, know nothing about the industry or its impact. Jon was interested and connected me with a Pulitzer grantee, Saul Elbein, who had published a deeply reported story for Vox.com on this issue of wood pellets.
Saul and I talked, agreed to team up, and developed a Pulitzer proposal that was readily approved; Pulitzer’s support was invaluable. I then reached out to John Dresher, the former News & Observer of Raleigh editor and acquaintance now at The Washington Post. He generously connected me to N&O managing editor Jane Elizabeth, who also, after careful consideration and plenty of questions, gave Saul and me the green light to get started.
It’s important to note that Enviva Biomass, the world’s largest maker of wood pellets with four of its eight plants in North Carolina, was not happy when it learned that Saul and I were working on this project. The multi-billion-dollar public company hired a crisis PR manager in Seattle who tried to talk Jane Elizabeth out of working with Saul and me; he tried to undermine our professional credibility based on our previous reporting on the issue, and he vowed that no one at Enviva would cooperate with us (none did). Since publication, Saul and I have been attacked by name on an industry-sponsored web site, and in an op-ed by Enviva’s CEO.
Not surprisingly, the N&O, still one of the Southeast’s most prestigious and influential news organizations, stood by Saul and me and the story we proposed. It assigned an experienced staff writer, Richard Stradling, to work with us, as well as an exceptional editor, Dave Hendrickson, to shepherd the ambitious and exhaustive six-month, multi-part, multimedia project to publication in print and online in early January 2020. Since the personal attacks online and in print, the N&O and Pulitzer Center have stood squarely behind my and Saul’s integrity and professionalism in fairly and accurately reporting on a highly controversial story.
Below are the links to the first-ever, indepth series by an independent news organization about an industry and international carbon-accounting policy that a broad consensus of international scientists, environmentalists and public health advocates has serious concerns about in regards to aiding and abetting the accelerating global calamities of climate change:
This story here, my third of ultimately five stories from COP25 in Madrid, Spain, was truly a team effort. It also illustrates the challenge and thrill of journalism — learning a new topic from scratch, finding just the right sources you’ve never met before, working with an editor in Indonesia and one in Vermont to put together a complex and nuanced environmental story about an ecologically sensitive part of the world (North Sumatra) with an rare and endangered great ape (Tapanuli orangutan).
Thanks to Isabel Esterman, Mongabay’s Indonesian editor, and Glenn Scherer, my editor at Mongabay, for putting me on to the story, then assisting prodigiously in putting all the pieces together about an Indonesian hydroelectric company, a dam-in-the-jungle project, the Tapanulis’ habitat and a serious question over carbon emissions.
Guardians of the Forest at Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, September 2018. Photo by Joel Redman, courtesy of If Not Us Then Who.
Several weeks before I flew to San Francisco ahead of Hurricane Florence to cover the Global Climate Action Summit hosted by Gov. Jerry Brown (September 12-14, 2018), I had a conference call with Mongabay special projects editor Willie Shubert and videographer/activist Paul Redman of the nonprofit group If Not Us Then Who. His group seeks to raise the visibility of indigenous peoples and their role in forest protection.
Willie had an idea for the story —ultimately, this story — and Paul had details about how I could get at it. His group was hosting a side event to the summit in which tribal leaders from around the world would meet for presentations, panel discussions and documentaries. What’s the story? I asked. They both offered ideas and themes, both general and specific. But I realized that this was one I just had to trust, trust that if I spent enough time at the side event, and spoke to enough people — along with the reading and research I would do in advance — that the story would come to me.
I spent several hours both September 13-14 at Covo, the co-working space where the side event was being held about a half mile from the Moscone Center and the main summit. Paul was there Thursday; he was tremendously helpful, lining up a trio of exceptional sources for me to interview one-on-one while I took notes during panel discussions and took in the scene. On Friday I interviewed NGOs with the Nature Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund for greater context. And little by little, I got the sense that I had witnessed something special, something important, and that I had the pieces I needed to tell the story.
This one quote by a remarkable tribal leader from Panama crystallized the theme of my story and led me to the equation around which I built my story: indigenous peoples + land title and tenue = climate mitigation:
“There is one basic principle,” Candido Mezua told Mongabay through a translator. “We cannot see the forest or nature as a tool for getting richer. That is something the indigenous people cannot do… We are contributing to climate stability, something we have been doing for centuries without being compensated one penny.”
Candido Mezua of Panama talking with me through translator Ana Isabel Alvardo of Costa Rica. My photo.
The world’s agriculture sector, which covers 40 percent of the earth’s surface, accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle is a big cause of methane gas.
I started working on this story early on while at COP23 in Bonn, Germany in November 2017. Jason Funk, a good source and associate director of land use for the Center for Carbon Removal, kept me up to date on negotiations regarding the world’s vast and varied agriculture sector and its connection to carbon emissions. As always, the problem has been known for years; also as always, lots of talk and zero action came of six years of meetings. Until the last week of COP23. Jason was so stunned that he was barely enthusiastic when he told me the news of the breakthrough outside the main plenary hall.
I knew this was a story I would pursue after I returned from Germany, and my editor, Glenn Scherer, was glad to have it as a tie-in to the Global Landscapes Forum, also held in Bonn a month after COP23. Meeting Bronson Griscom of The Nature Conservancy and his high-level report about how much the land sector can contribute to climate mitigation was a lucky break.
If the world has any chance of meeting the Paris Agreement goals for emission reductions and slowing the rate of global warming, all levers must be pulled — among them how we farm and what we eat.
Fiji, the first truly vulnerable nation to host a COP, had hoped the motto of COP23 would be true. What it and other similar nations got was: wait til next year. Again. Photo by Justin Catanoso
My first commentary for Mongabay, written with the encouragement of reporter/editor Mike Gaworecki. I greatly appreciated the opportunity. An excerpt:
How many hurricanes the ferocity of Harvey, Irma, and Maria must be experienced in the US alone to stoke a greater sense of urgency? How many climate refugees need to be pushed from sub-Saharan Africa and Syria because of unrelenting drought? How much more Arctic ice needs to melt? How much sea-level rise can be tolerated in low-lying island nations — and Miami Beach, for goodness sake — before COP participants stop delaying greater ambitions prior to 2020, when a stronger Paris Agreement is to take effect?