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.
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 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.”
Those innocuous-looking pellets, processed mostly from farmed pine trees in the Southeastern US, are a potential game breaker for the Paris Agreement goals, as I explain in this story.
It is perhaps the most consequential story I’ve reported on climate policy since I started in this space five years ago. Thanks to Don Lehr, my very first climate science source, whom I met at COP20 in Lima, Peru, in 2014, for tipping me off. And thanks also to a host of expert sources in tutoring me on biomass and carbon neutrality, entirely new topics for me. No longer.
Professor Doreen Stabinsky, pictured above, told me: “Why does the IPCC appear to accept inaccurate emissions accounting?” She then answered: Because “IPCC scientists are technocrats. It is not a neutral body. There is a lot of politics behind the positions of individuals on the IPCC. Their meetings are often loudly political.” Stabinsky speaks from firsthand knowledge: she studies the nexus between environmental policy and politics at College of the Atlantic, Maine.
Wake Forest ecology student learn first hand the perils of plastic on Long Caye. Photo by Justin Catanoso
During the week of March 7, 2015 — Spring Break — my wife and I traveled with a group of Wake Forest University students and faculty in a coral ecology class. Arriving in Belize City late morning, we all boarded a boat called the Great White and piloted 47 miles into the Caribbean to Lighthouse Reef Atoll, a remote and mostly untouched set of six islands on the world’s second-largest coral reef. We set up home for the week on Long Caye (2.5 miles long; 0.9 milewide) and the Itza Lodge, a fabulous, rustic eco-lodge used mostly by university groups and some intrepid tourists.
The beauty of the coral reef on Lighthouse Reef Atoll is unsurpassed. Photo by Justin Catanoso
My goal journalistically was to return with a story tied to the underwater marvels we saw while snorkeling daily in the clear turquoise water in the Atoll — including the famous Great Blue Hole. Instead, I came back with a heartbreaking story about our voluminous, reckless use-and-disposal of all manners of plastics, and how it is marring a place as beautiful, pristine and remote as Long Caye.