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.
This story herebegan about a year ago with an email from Roger Smith, a forest advocate for the NGO Mighty Earth in Tokyo, Japan. He had been following my biomass coverage focusing on the United Kingdom, Europe, Southeastern United States and British Columbia, and wanted me to know that biomass energy was growing in Japan. Would I write about it?
The short answer was yes. Roger and I spoke for more than an hour not long after he reached out. I intended to do the story during COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. But other stories piled up, time flew by, and even though I met the chief of staff of Japan’s energy minister, who promised to arrange an interview — after the climate summit — it didn’t happen. Fortunately, an American freelance journalist in Japan, Annelise Gisebert, pitched a biomass story to Mongabay, and my editor Glenn Scherer saw an opportunity for us work together.
It took more than a month of reporting, worked in around classes and grading, and a 13-hour time difference for Annelise and me to arrange interviews and talk about our reporting. But we finally compiled the information we needed for the first in-depth, Asia-focused stories on biomass that have been written at Mongabay. Annelise’s story, linked here, ran a week after mine.
Essentially, I wrote about the demand side for biomass in Japan and South Korea, while Annelise focused on where all the additional wood is coming from to meet Asian demand. What’s clear is that as both countries look to generate more energy from wood, more trees from intact forests will fall around the world at the very time we can least afford to lose their ecosystem services during this escalating climate crisis.
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.
At the conclusion of every UN climate summit I’ve covered since Paris in 2015, I’ve written a story that summarizes the highlights (few) and disappointments (many) in a kind of post-COP analysis. Because of the massive global media attention COP26 drew (nearly 4,000 credentialed journalists), that story was largely written by others before I landed back in North Carolina.
Instead, with this final story from COP26, I followed an idea that came to me during my return flight home. I decided to focus on what seemed to me to be two significant positive developments from a climate summit that was declared a failure before it even started. Those two elements — one old and easily grasped, the other new and technologically futuristic — could turn out to be climate game changers in the decades ahead. That is, of course, if they receive the international support and billions in funding required to enable both to, in one case flourish, and in the other, reach proof of concept on a global scale.
Let’s be clear. The coordinated effort to save the planet by holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial times has virtually no chance of succeeding without these efforts I write about, in combination with accelerated efforts to decarbonize industrial economies and halt deforestation and biodiversity loss in the world’s great forests. G-20 leaders have simply wasted too many decades making problems worse for any shortcuts or easy fixes to this existential climate crisis.
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.
I arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, for my seventh United Nations climate summit on Friday, November 5, my birthday. I celebrated by self-administering a Covid-19 test in my AirBnB apartment, reporting the negative result to the National Scottish Health Service, then hailing a taxi to the venue. There, after weaving my way through unusually mobbed corridors of masked people from around the world, I met up, as planned, with Daphne Wysham, chief executive of Methane Action, for this story, which posted the following Monday.
Over the course of a half day that Friday and most of Saturday, I climbed the learning curve regarding methane as a greenhouse gas, how much more potent in its heat-trapping capacity it is than carbon dioxide, and why it only lasts in the atmosphere for 10-12 years, compared to centuries for CO2. Those details alone make methane a ripe target for climate action. In fact, more than 100 nations signed a declaration before I arrived in Scotland to reduce their own methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. It’s far from enough, which is where Methane Action comes in.
Daphne was eager to talk not only because she has a remarkable story to tell, but also because she and I met in Port Townsend, Washington, last July when I was reporting on the value of old-growth trees in temperate rainforests while in Washington state. Her husband John Talbert, a forest ecologist, was one of my sources. I learned just enough about Daphne’s work to know I wanted to follow up.
This is one of the more surprising stories I’ve reported and written at a climate summit. It’s actually hopeful, I realized, as I slowly grasped how engineered methods of methane oxidation — if proven in the lab and then successfully applied at a global scale — could turn out to be the most effective way of slowing global warming in the short term. It also holds the hard-to-believe potential of actually bringing about global cooling in a few decades. My story provides the details, with all the necessary caveats.
I wrote my second story for COP26, the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, while I was still in North Carolina. The first two days of the summit were attended by heads of state from around the world, eager to show some kind of eagerness toward climate action. The result here was the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by the U.S as well as more than 100 other countries. The goal — eliminating deforestation by 2030.
This declaration dovetailed well with my first story, which highlighted the importance of nature-based solutions in fighting climate change, and how deforestation was undermining nature’s ability to sequester carbon and provide the ecosystems services it has always provided to slow the rate of warming.
Backed by $19 billion in funding to assist in reducing deforestation and promoting Indigenous land tenure, it even sounds pretty good. As I wrote: The Glasgow signees, the declaration says, “emphasize the critical and interdependent roles of forests of all types, biodiversity and sustainable land use in enabling the world to meet its sustainable development goals; to help achieve a balance between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and removal by sinks; to adapt to climate change; and to maintain other ecosystem services.”
But it’s what’s not in the declaration that not only weakens it, but according to a variety of my sources, implicitly encourages logging forests for timber and pellets so long as they are replaced with what is usually monoculture tree plantations that lack biodiversity, sequester little carbon and are harvested on a regular cycle. My story looks at both the positive and suspect aspects of a declaration whose primary goal is truly needed.
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.
Forest Trends is an NGO I’ve been familiar with for a number of years, primarily through a deputy director, Gena Gammie, who lives in Lima and heads up water conservation initiatives there. I’ve interviewed Michael Jenkins, the founder and CEO, several times and have always found him knowledgeable and candid — no nonsense, like Phil Duffy at Woodwell Climate Research Center. So when Forest Trends released a major new report on illegal deforestation connected to agriculture commodities, I knew we had a for a solid story for Mongabay. The story linked here. Also, Mongabay produced a short, subtitled video of my story for social media, linked here.
An excerpt: “In its report, Illicit Harvest, Complicit Goods, NGO Forest Trends found that at least 69% of tropical forests cleared for agricultural activities such as ranching and farmland between 2013 and 2019 was done in violation of national laws and regulations. The actual amount of illegally deforested land is immense during that period – 31.7 million hectares, or an area roughly the size of Norway.
“The report reveals the climate impact of this illegal agro-conversion is equally significant, making up 42% of greenhouse gas emissions of all tropical deforestation. The related emissions total of 2.7 gigatons of CO2 annually during the seven-year period is more than India’s fossil fuel emissions in 2018. The study notes that if tropical deforestation emissions tied to commercial agriculture were a country, it would rank third behind China and the U.S.”
The problem only gets worse year by year — even as climate and national leaders stress that there were few things more important in curbing global warming and protecting biodiversity than dramatically reducing deforestation — especially in places where it’s already illegal. The issue will need to be a high priority at the United Nations climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021.
Special thanks to Mongabay’s Morgan Erickson-Davis for her careful edit.