My December stories on the wood pellets industry, from the Enviva whistleblower to the policy changes in The Netherlands and Australia, have attracted attention from other journalists, including those working in Denmark, Germany, and the U.S. My colleague Erik Hoffner knows radio host Alex Wise, with Sea Change Radio in the Bay Area of California. Wise was eager to talk with me about my December coverage on his program, which focuses on issues related to climate change and sustainability.
Here’s our interview. Included midway is a fabulous Hank Williams song Settin’ the Woods on Fire, which adds a little levity to an otherwise serious set of issues. Sea Change Radio is carried weekly on more than 80 radio stations coast to coast in the U.S. and up into Alaska.
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 heredescribes 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This story of mine posted during the same week that The New York Times reported that the Trump Administration had reversed or was in the process of reversing 99 environmental regulations designed to protect our air, water, wildlife, national parks and fragile ecosystems. Now, the EPA is set to issue a new ruling that very well could imperil the nation’s privately held woodlands from coast to coast. If the US defines the burning of wood pellets — a focus of my reporting for more than two years now — as carbon neutral, we are likely to see utilities shift in parts of the country to burning wood for energy. Some of the wood will come tree farms grown for wood products. But too much will come from established forests and thriving ecosystems.
My story focuses on a letter to Congressional leaders on House and Senate environmental committees from 200 scientists in 35 states urging them to look closing at the peer-reviewed science and protect the nations woodlands from the carbon-neutral designation.
The science could not be more clear. Burning wood for energy is not carbon neutral in any acceptable timeframe given the accelerating pace of global warming. Trees, whether in the tropics, temperate zones or boreal forests, remain the most reliable way of pulling greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and storing it in their leaves, limbs, trunks and soil as long as those trees are standing. In no sane world would we be clear-cutting forests for the wood to be pelletized and burned for energy. Yet this form of energy, with the carbon neutrality loophole (see story for details) is increasing across Europe, the United Kingdom and now Asia.
“The only option we have right now to avoid climate disaster is [to conserve] the natural world,” Bill Moomaw, co-author of the letter to Congress and a leading forest ecologist from Tufts University, told me in an interview for this story. “Forests are the one thing we have the greatest potential to protect. If we let them grow, they will store more and more carbon.”
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.