Forest advocates in Europe, led by Fenna Swart and Maarten Visschers of The Netherlands, have lobbied against the growing use of biomass across the continent for several years now. They’ve been joined by a host of NGOs from the United Kingdom to the Baltic states, all raising public opposition to wood-burning-for-energy-and-heat. Citizen petitions have been signed by the hundreds of thousands.
Collectively, though, their efforts, combined with forest ecologists using their science to speak up as well, hasn’t made a dent in European Union biomass policy. This story explains, however, that among the Environment Committee of the European Parliament, there is a now majority of members who have been persuaded enough to recommend unprecedented policy changes to biomass usage under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, RED.
As I note in my story, forest advocates are cautiously optimistic and highly skeptical. Another parliament committee can derail the recommendations. The Russian war with Ukraine, and the rush to stop the flow of Russian fossil fuels to Europe, complicates matters. And the most influential climate politician in the EU, Frans Timmersmans of The Netherlands, still backs biomass as the primary way for the EU to stop burning coal, as it is legally mandated to do. A final decision is expected in September 2022.
Since 2018, when I first began writing stories related to biomass, I’ve covered the issue and story from a variety of angles. Most have focused on efforts by forest advocates, ecologists and climate scientists to use a growing stack of peer-reviewed science to impress upon policymakers, especially in the European Union and United Kingdom, that replacing coal with wood — in the form of pellets, chips or other forms of biomass — is not a viable climate solution and is actually driving up carbon emissions — the very thing that needs to be reversed to slow the rate of global warming. Some stories have simply focused on the unparalleled success of the wood pellet industry, its accelerating growth and profits, and the fact that it makes up 60 percent of “renewable” energy in Europe, not zero-carbon wind, solar or nuclear.
The forest advocates are losing this battle — badly. It’s not even close. State subsidies to burn wood instead of coal reach into the billions. Profits are growing. New markets are ramping up in Asia. And intact forests — the first line of defense in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — are falling in greater acreage for wood pellets in the Southeastern United States, British Columbia, Eastern Europe and soon Vietnam.
This story, posted March 2022, follows up on a story I wrote from Glasgow in November 2021 at COP26: the new front in climate action is litigation. Forest advocates, with a lawsuit prepared, are now hoping for access to the European Court in Luxembourg as a way of altering EU policy toward biomass to reduce its usage and provide more protection for the world’s forests. My story is reported from a variety of angles which explain both the opportunities and obstacles to this approach, and a new study that breaks new ground on the long-term impact of the growing demand for wood pellets for energy and heat.
My goal on the last afternoon of official negotiations was to simply attend press conferences, track the shifting language in the latest draft of the Glasgow accords and Paris Agreement rulebook, and prepare for the climate summit wrap up I would write once I returned home to the U.S. I had no plans to write this story.
But sometimes luck intervenes and directs you to a front row seat to history. After getting into the venue, I noticed a line of people filing into the main plenary hall, called Cairn Gorm. It wasn’t long before I realized that this could be, in borrowing from Hamilton, ‘the room where it happened.’ When U.S. climate envoy John Kerry walked right in front of me on his way to his seat, and I then heard COP26 President Alok Sharma of Great Britain call the hastily called meeting of 196 nations “our collective moment in history,” I knew I had one last story to write from Glasgow.
The tension, the emotions, the high-stakes pressure, the frustration, the recognition of a race against time in rescuing the planet from the worst ravages of human-caused climate change infused grand, furious and pleading messages by delegates from every nation. What a story.
The last time I got to question Frans Timmermans, the executive vice president of the European Commission and easily the most influential politician in the EU, was at COP25 in Madrid, Spain, in December 2019, just weeks before the pandemic took hold. It was the last day of a dismal summit. I asked him about the future of biomass in the EU, and his answer was so surprising that it led to a story that quite literally stunned anti-biomass activists around from the US to Belgium to Australia.
In this story, my third from Glasgow, I got to question Timmermans again. This time, his answer was far more predictable, and to those same anti-biomass advocates, an enormous disappointment. I did get more than one question, though, as I asked Mr. Timmermans if he could talk further after the 30-minute EU press conference, which took place at exactly the same time former US President Barack Obama was addressing a packed plenary hall a few hundred yards away.
Aside from a range of reactions from forest defenders around the globe, I also received a detailed and thoughtful response from Christian Rakos of Vienna, Austria, president of the World Bioenergy Association. Rakos surprised me by offering an open dialogue with those who oppose everything about the industry he represents. I included it in my story and he reiterated his interest during a 90-minute meeting I had with him over Italian beer at the summit venue. Later, post-COP26, at dinner in Amsterdam with the EU’s leading biomass opponent, Fenna Swart, I mentioned to her Rakos’ interest in talking with her — even volunteering to travel to Holland to meet in person.
Swart and Rakos exchanged emails and a meeting between them is planned in Amsterdam.
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 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.
Having covered six United Nations climate summits, dating back to Lima, Peru, in 2014, I am all too familiar with the ambitious promises of climate action and the unified chorus of environmental-protection support from world leaders (until Trump). And then, of course, as my previous story out of British Columbia illustrates, nothing — a near-total lack of political will to prioritize nature, forests and biodiversity over anything resembling sacrifice or pushback against polluting industries and forestry interests.
President Joe Biden appears to be trying to change that. He has sent constant signals that he and his entire government intend to act on climate change in a broad and coordinated way not only to reassert US leadership after the reckless and embarrassing Trump years, but because of the science: we have less than 10 years to dramatically decarbonize G-20 economies to stave off the climate crisis that worsens every day, according to multiple reports from the International Panel on Climate Change.
In my first breaking news story since COP25 in Madrid in December 2019, I cover Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate and address the gap between climate-action promises made by the US, China, the UK, EU and others, and what still stands in the way of desperately needed real action. The Eurasia Review republished my story.
As Dave McGlinchey of the Woodwell Climate Research Center told me: “This summit could be a critical turning point in our fight against climate change, but we have seen ambitious goals before and we have seen them fall flat. Today’s commitments must be followed with effective implementation, and with transparent reporting and accurate carbon accounting.”
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.
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 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.