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.
In this story, I revisit a part of the world I wrote about last June — British Columbia, its rare and vanishing towering old-growth forests in coastal and interior rainforests, and a progressive government’s promises to protect and preserve much of what’s left. Spoiler alert: it’s not.
“I know what they say [in the National Democratic Party], but I don’t know what this government’s long-term vision is for forestry,” Sonia Furstenau, BC’s Green Party leader, told me in an hour-long interview. “They are adhering to the status quo that is giving us the same outcomes we’ve had for decades. I was on the finance committee a few years ago. I spent a lot of time in small planes flying over the province. When you fly over British Columbia, it is a landscape of devastation. It’s heart-wrenching to see it from the sky, just how little intact forest there is left.”
My in-depth story reveals the sentiments some the top players in this environmental saga of unfilled political promises — leading forestry experts, political insiders, even a statement to Mongabay from BC’s forestry minister. It all adds up to an inescapable conclusion: despite the NDP adopting paradigm-shifting recommendations it commissioned in 2020, the majority government is still prioritizing logging and a growing wood-pellet industry over some of the last great old-growth forests, rare ecosystems and endangered species in North America.
As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upped his nation’s carbon-reduction ambition under the Paris Agreement, he will find it increasingly difficult to meet those goals by 2030 as his country’s most powerful carbon sinks are felled for lumber and wood pellets to be burned overseas in power plants.
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.
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.
On February 12, 2020, with a letter to “all persons of good will,” Pope Francis sought to reclaim the mantle of global environmental leadership he established in mid-2015. That’s when he the released of the first-ever papal encyclical (Catholic teaching document of the highest order) on environmental protection and climate change — Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home.
My story for Mongay here picks up that thread with Dear Amazon, a papal letter in response to the first-ever Vatican meeting in October 2019 to focus on a specific region of the planet — Amazonia. While topics at the so-called synod focused largely on environmental protection and the rights of the indigenous peoples who live in those jungles, the mainstream coverage of Francis’ letter focused almost solely on his decision to not allow priests to marry who agree to serve in the dramatically underserved Amazon regions spread across eight countries.
This left an opening for me to write a kind of exclusive about the pope’s environmental and social justice message, which makes up the vast majority of Dear Amazon. The story idea was pitched to me by my inimitable editor Glenn Scherer. I was glad for the opportunity.
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.
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:
Because of widespread media attention over the past five years or more — who can resist a story that combines gold, organized crime, prostitution and environmental devastation of a pristine rain forest? — Madre de Dios in the southern Peruvian Amazon has become known worldwide as a kind of hell on earth.
But as my story for Mongbay explains, a lot can happen in a year. La Pampa, the worst but by no means only large-scale illegal mining operation, was raided and largely shut down by the national government in February 2019. And the previous month, Madre de Dios — a region about the size of South Carolina known as the most biodiverse place on earth — elected a governor who wasn’t a miner. Instead, Luis Hidalgo Okimura is intent on reducing mining, formalizing and taxing miners who remain, and rescuing his home region from further environmental destruction.
I got to interview Hidalgo with three of my students in his government conference room not far from our hotel in Puerto Maldonado. After an hour and a half, I knew I had the makings of a good story. Specials thanks to my colleague Cesar Ascorra, national director of CINCIA, for arranging the interview. CINCIA is a Wake Forest-led science project that has developed proven strategies to repair deforested tropical areas and mitigate the public health threat of 185 tons of mercury dumped a year in Madre de Dios.
It was also a pleasure to work again with Mongabay editor Morgan Erikson-Davis. She not only accepted my story pitch, she enhanced the story by both downloading and analyzing satellite images that showed expanding deforestation outside La Pampa.
This gigantic mahogany is Cocha Cashu is a rich target for illegal timbering. If were to fall and be burned, it would release tons of sequestered CO2 and no longer provide the ecosystem service of absorbing air pollution. (That’s me in the background.) Photo by Jason Houston
On Oct. 8, 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) raised a bright red flag of warning for world leaders. In essence, the 91 climate scientists from 40 nations decried in a major report the lack of action on climate mitigation internationally. It made clear that time is running out. They warned that irreversible climate damage could lock in as early as 2040, not decades later, as previously hoped.
This story of mine, posted one week later, is largely in response to the IPCC report and is based on the research stemming from another group of climate scientists and advocates with the acronym CLARA — Climate, Land, Ambition and Rights Alliance.
As one source told me: “Our study is not meant to either contradict or complement the IPCC report,” said Doreen Stabinsky, a co-author of Missing Pathways. “The IPCC looks very generally at pathways to 1.5 degrees C. We dive into the literature to find what would be useful, specific contributions from the land sector to stay within a 1.5-degree pathway.”
Interesting context. Mongabay special editor Willie Shubert emailed me Thursday morning, Oct. 11, to ask if I could turn a story around quickly on the CLARA study and have it ready to post by Monday, Oct. 15. I agreed. I put calls out early Thursday afternoon and arranged for three telephone interviews on Friday. I knew Hurricane Michael, a climate-change-fueled monster, had made landfall in northern Florida at 155 mph a day earlier; I didn’t realize it was heading to central North Carolina. By Thursday afternoon, winds in Greensboro hit 50 mph as Michael swept through. Trees fell all over the Triad. Power and Internet went out in my neighborhood and around the region around 3:30 pm Thursday. It would not be restored until Sunday afternoon.
A sincere thanks to HQ Greensboro, the co-working space in downtown Greensboro, which never lost power or Internet service. I spent all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday there, doing my reporting, conducting my interviews, grading my Wake Forest assignments, and finally, writing the story linked here. My editor, Glenn Scherer, liked the irony that I was writing about climate mitigation while being directly affected by a climate-influenced event.
Indigenous people from the jungles of Peru line up in Puerto Maldonado to see Pope Francis. Photo by Luis Fernandez
My story here about the visit of Pope Francis to the Peruvian Amazon city of Puerto Maldonado was historic in every sense. It was the pope’s first visit to Amazonia, a region of South America the size of the continental United States. While he spoke largely about conservation of the Amazon’s great and important ecosystems, he mostly gave voice and inspiration to the forgotten, oppressed and shoved-aside peoples who live in those far-off places — the rightful owners of the land, the indigenous tribes of multiple nationalities.
Pope Francis clearly called on the Catholic Church of South America to live up to and live out the promise of his encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home, and called on the tribes for their guidance. This is a critical time for church leaders to step up, as my story discusses.
The pope greeting the people in the streets of Puerto Maldonado. Photo by Luis Fernandez