Tag Archives: Climate change

Environment  Mongabay Newscast: Are biomass and hydropower ‘false’ climate solutions?

A handful of biomass, prior to being turned into wood pellets. Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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.

A pair of Balkan lynxes. Ana Colovic Lesoska helped stop two large hydroelectric dams from being built in North Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park, which provides important habitat for the Balkan lynx. Photo by Goldman Environmental Prize.

Environment  Mongabay: Will new US EPA head continue his opposition to burning forests for energy?

President Biden’s choice to head the US Environmental Protection Agency, Michael S. Regan. In the past, he has made strong statements criticizing the burning of wood pellets to make energy. Image courtesy of North Carolina Governor’s Office.

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 Raleigh about 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.

Environment  Mongabay: French Guiana soy biofuel power plants risk massive Amazon deforestation

Cutline: French Guiana, a department of France on the northeast coast of South America, is more than 98 percent forested in Amazonia. It’s one of the last remaining large tracts of largely undisturbed Amazon jungle, rich in biodiversity. Proposed policy and energy changes proposed in Paris could dramatically impact these important ecosystems.

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.

The heavily forested port of Larivot in Cayenne, French Guiana, where a 120-megawatt soy liquid biofuels energy station is planned. Image courtesy of Francois Kuseni.

Environment  Mongabay: Are forests the new coal? Global alarm sounds as biomass burning surges

In this stunning graphic created by the Southern Environmental Law Center is the size and scope of the massive wood pellet production industry in the US Southeast, one of the world’s largest producers of wood pellets for energy generation in the UK and EU. The biomass production is concentrated here because nearly all forested land is privately owned with cheap, easy access to forests for clear-cutting, destroying species habitats and weakening climate mitigation in a region beset by hurricanes and flooding.

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.


A load logging truck pulls into the Enviva biomass wood pellet plant in Northampton, North Carolina. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance / NRDC.

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.


In 2017 demand for industrial wood pellets exceeded 14 million tons. By 2027, demand is expected to more than double to over 36 million tons. The biggest increases in biomass burning by 2027 are expected in Europe, Japan and South Korea, with newly targeted source forests in Brazil, Mozambique and Australia. Image courtesy of Environmental Paper Network

Environment  Mongabay: British Columbia poised to lose ‘white rhino of old growth forests’


British Columbia’s remaining old growth forests aren’t only valuable for the carbon storage they provide; they should also be cherished for their uniqueness, the biodiversity they harbor, and the awe they inspire. Image by Jakob Dulisse.

This story of mine for 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.


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: Healing the world through ‘radical listening’: Q&A with Dr. Kinari Webb

Out on a limb: Unlikely collaboration boosts orangutans in Borneo
Kinari Webb was drawn to Borneo initially to study and help protect orangutans. In listening to how best to accomplish that goal, she decided that health care was the key. She entered Yale Medical School, became a physician and returned to Borneo to found Health in Harmony.

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.


Dr. Kinari Webb. Image by Robert Lisak.

Radio  KCRW Los Angeles: Microsoft wants to go carbon negative. What does that mean?

Building 92 at Microsoft Corporation headquarters in Redmond, Washington, 2016.
Building 92 at Microsoft Corporation headquarters in Redmond, Washington, 2016.Credit: Coolcaesar (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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.

Environment  Mongabay: Success of Microsoft’s ‘moonshot’ climate pledge hinges on forest conservation

Remote sensing through and artificial intelligence are keys to Pachama’s novel strategy for tracking the amount of carbon stored in forests for the purposes of augmenting the market for forest protection and carbon offsets. Photo courtesy Pachama

Here’s my story behind 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.

Diego Saez-Gil, a native Argentinian with a graduate degree from Stanford, is a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Pachama is his third company. He got the idea while touring the Peruvian Amazon with his two brothers and witnessing massive deforestation from illegal gold mining. “We all wanted to do something about it,” he said. Image courtesy of Pachama.

EnvironmentRadio  WUNC/The State of Things: A Closer Look At The Wood Pellet Industry

Wood pellet production. Photo credit:
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

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.

Environment  News & Observer of Raleigh: ‘Slow Burn’ — The first-ever indepth look at the wood pellet industry in North Carolina, in three parts

A worker walks past logs stacked at the Enviva plant in Northampton County, N.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. Enviva turns the logs into cylindrical pellets that will be burned for heat and electricity in Europe.

A worker walks past logs stacked at the Enviva plant in Northampton County, N.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. Enviva turns the logs into cylindrical pellets that will be burned for heat and electricity in Europe. ETHAN HYMAN EHYMAN@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

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 did.

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.

Enviva facilities have generated hundreds of tons of air pollution a year, critics say

In this file photo, a logging truck loaded with freshly cut hardwoods enters the Enviva wood-pellet plant in Ahoskie, N.C. THE WASHINGTON POST JOBY WARRICK

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:

Part 1 by Saul Elbein: Europe uses tons of NC trees as fuel. Will this solve climate change?

Part 2 by Justin Catanoso: From Poland to NC, activists plea for reduced carbon dioxide

Part 3 by Richard Stradling: World’s largest wood pellet maker both welcomed and condemned in NC

Part 2 sidebar by Justin Catanoso: Enviva facilities have generated hundreds of tons of air pollution a year, critics say

Part 2 sidebar by Justin Catanoso: DEQ Secretary Michael Regan discusses the wood pellet industry

Also: About Enviva

And: How this project was reported

How this project was reported
Wood pellets from North Carolina forests and tree farms at the center of an international environmental controversy. Photo by Michael Frierson