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 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.
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 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.