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 of minefor Mongabay put me on a learning curve to understanding a new and important ecosystem: inland temperate rain forests of British Columbia, Canada, and how they are vanishing to over-timbering and now wood pellet production. The story turns on two spring 2020 reports that spell out clearly what’s at stake. Both reports were produced for a progressive government in Victoria that for the first time in memory is at least interested forest conservation — especially old-growth forests of the province’s tallest trees along its coast and inland in these unique rain forests.
The story also carries my first video for Mongabay, in which I worked closely with our India-based video producer Manon Verchot. Her skill at these 5-minute YouTube videos is readily apparent. Here’s the video link.
There is much at stake in this story: ancient, irreplaceable trees; wildlife on the brink of extinction; carbon storage of prodigious volume; climate mitigation that is critical both to Canada and the planet; government faced with critical decisions regarding the environment and the economy.
For this story, I received this pitch from a PR representative about a month into the Covid-19 pandemic. I was eager for a story that connected the essence of my reporting for Mongabay — climate change and environmental protection — with this global public health crisis. This seemed a viable idea:
“As society examines how to respond to the fallout from coronavirus, we invite you to interview Dr. Kinari Webb, founder of the international nonprofit Health In Harmony, which takes an integrated approach to human and environmental health and is one of the most effective organizations at halting deforestation in Indonesian Borneo. Dr. Webb knows that it is possible to completely rethink approaches to both health, livelihood and conservation – understanding that they are intimately intertwined.”
So I spent some time researching Kinari Webb and her NGO. I read previous stories on Mongabay about her work. I listened to her interviewed a year ago on the Mongabay podcast. Then I pitched the idea of a Q&A with this remarkable environmentalist and medical doctor to my editor, Morgan Erickson-Davis. She said yes. The PR person arranged the interview. And a few days later, I enjoyed a wide-ranging, free-flowing discussion with Webb from her home in Los Angeles. The result, during these often-depressing times of social distancing and personal isolation, is invigorating, provocative and by turns hopeful.
I am fortunate to have a good friend working as a producer in Los Angeles on the popular noon public radio program called Press Play with Madeleine Brand on KCRW. I had worked with this talented producer previously when covering the last two UN climate summits in Poland and Spain. Recently, my friend accepted first pitch based on my story for Mongabay about Pachama, the Silicon Valley startup that will monitor the carbon offsets Microsoft to preserve forests in forests in North and South America.
The eight-minute interview is linked here. Press Play reaches much of Southern California. I hope it’s not my last time on the program.
Here’s my storybehind a Silicon Valley startup up with enormous ambitions when it comes to climate mitigation with a global client to match its lofty goals.
In mid-January, Microsoft made an astonishing pledge: a company that now emits 16 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually would become carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050, zero out all of the emissions it ever put up into the atmosphere since the company was founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1975.
Much of this effort would require “negative emissions,” or pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, not merely reducing its emissions from energy, transportation and infrastructure over its 12-country footprint. To do that, Microsoft will have to be heavily involved in protecting forests from deforestation to continue to act as a carbon sink, and contribute significantly to the reforestation of vast tracts of degraded land in order to pull more pollution from the sky.
My story focuses on the company, Pachama (Andean for Earth mother) that will do the high-tech aerial monitoring to verify that Microsoft’s carbon offset investments are intact and growing. It’s a critically important job if we are to get an accurate read on whether Microsoft, and others, are truly reducing their carbon footprint. I rarely get to write optimistic stories on climate mitigation, but this one certainly qualifies. It was a pleasure to interview the company’s smart and idealistic founder, Diego Saez-Gil.
The producers of The State of Things, the hour-long radio program of WUNC, invited me on the program on Jan. 14, 2020, to discuss the wood pellet series I co-authored with Saul Elbein and Richard Stradling for the News & Observer of Raleigh. Here is the link to my 10-minute discussion with host Frank Stasio. The program was broadcast from Triad Stage in Greensboro before an audience of about 50 people.
The series has drawn a lot of attention — positive and critical. Saul and I have also come under what appears to be a coordinated attack on our reporting and professional integrity by the pellet industry, including the CEO of Enviva in a commentary he wrote for the N&O. It is all validation of the accuracy and importance of our reporting on an issue central to climate change and climate mitigation. We are both proud of how the N&O editors and Pulitzer Center have stood behind us, our reporting and the fairness and accuracy of the wood pellets project. Funding from the Pulitzer Center made our reporting possible.
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:
That’s not what hope looks like, is it? But those empty chairs, as soon as I saw them outside the main plenary hall at #COP25 in Madrid, I recognized a metaphor for this disturbing and deeply disappointing climate summit (story linked here).
Listen to Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, whom I interviewed after a panel discussion in which he participated:
“In the last 10 years following the climate talks, they have never been as bleak and disappointing as this conference. The science is staring us in the face and school children are taking to the streets in their millions, and yet at the global climate summit countries are blocking progress and watering down climate action. It’s disgraceful and politicians are simply not doing their job of protecting the planet.
“We need to see countries committing to new and improved climate plans next year. That regular review and ratchet mechanism was what made the Paris agreement an effective tool for reducing emissions, but countries are dragging their feet and they are putting us all in danger.”
My final story from my sixth climate summit details what happened and didn’t happen, and in the final section, explains why. It all comes down to leadership. And until the U.S. reengages in this process in a positive, not destructive way, hopes for the Paris Agreement coming close to achieving its climate mitigation goals will be remote.
This story linked here came about a bit on a lark. My new friends in the Italian press corps told me they were attending a late-afternoon press conference with leaders of the European Union and parliament. I decided to go, sat near the front, and tuned out the obligatory chatter about progress near the end of the summit (there was none). Instead, I had just one question and made sure the moderator called on me.
When he did, I mentioned that the top priority of the EU is about accuracy in carbon accounting, and yet it allows, as a matter of policy, for biomass (wood pellets) to be burned instead of called and being considered carbon neutral. As a result, biomass emissions, which studies have concluded pollute more than coal, are not counted by the nation burning them. So much for a commitment to accurate carbon accounting.
The two ministers paused before answering my question. More than 100 foreign journalists crowded the room. I thought they might ignore it. But they didn’t. And their answers surprised me enough, and the NGOs I ran it by, that I realized I had credible story to write on one of the high-profile issues I will continue to cover in this climate emergency saga.
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.