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.
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.
This story came to me directly as a result of my coverage of the biomass-for-energy story over the past two years. Biofuelwatch, an environmental group, had organized a global group of NGOs to appeal to the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, to pull its 5 percent stake in the world’s largest energy-generating plant using wood pellets. Millions of tons of pellets are produced annually largely Southeastern US forests.
The underlying goal? If the world is going to dramatically reduce its use of fossil fuels, large investment companies like BlackRock need to divest hundreds of billions of dollars in oil, gas, coal and biomass, and ramp up investment in genuine zero-carbon wind and solar energy.
The company in question is one of I’ve about often; Drax, the United Kingdom’s largest energy provider. I interviewed its CEO at COP25 in Madrid, Spain, in mid-December in a fairly contentious encounter following a presentation in which no questions from the audience were allowed.
Thanks to Mongabay editor Morgan Erikson-Davis for her careful attention to detail. And thanks to my Mongabay colleague Erik Hoffner for arranging for the story to be republished here with the environmental news site Eco-Business.
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:
Signs like these at the Moscone Center were indicative of a climate action process that is necessarily moving beyond the inertia of national governments and unwilling presidents and prime ministers. Photo by Justin Catanoso
California Gov. Jerry Brown‘s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco was nothing less than a poke in the eye to presidents and prime ministers of developed nations — not simply the intransigent and denialist Trump Administration. In holding this three-day summit (Sept. 12-14, 2018), and making governors, mayors, business executives, tribal leaders and scientists the stars, a clear message was sent: if the goals of the Paris Agreement are to be met, it will take the determined efforts of subnational leaders to get it done.
Having covered four year-end United Nation’s climate summits, including the historic meeting in Paris in December 2015, and one mid-year summit in Bonn in 2016, I have come to see the gatherings as largely rhetorical exercises in caution, delay and international lack of will with the countries most responsible for global warming. What the California summit lacked in international authority, it compensated for in actual action being taken in cities, states, indigenous lands and at corporations in the fight against climate change. Caveat, as I report: it’s not nearly enough to peak global emissions or slow the rate of climate change.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said through regulations and incentives, his city cut carbon emissions by 11 percent in 2017, which is equal to removing 737,00 cars from LA roads and highways. Photo by Justin Catanoso
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.
Fiji, the first truly vulnerable nation to host a COP, had hoped the motto of COP23 would be true. What it and other similar nations got was: wait til next year. Again. Photo by Justin Catanoso
My first commentary for Mongabay, written with the encouragement of reporter/editor Mike Gaworecki. I greatly appreciated the opportunity. An excerpt:
How many hurricanes the ferocity of Harvey, Irma, and Maria must be experienced in the US alone to stoke a greater sense of urgency? How many climate refugees need to be pushed from sub-Saharan Africa and Syria because of unrelenting drought? How much more Arctic ice needs to melt? How much sea-level rise can be tolerated in low-lying island nations — and Miami Beach, for goodness sake — before COP participants stop delaying greater ambitions prior to 2020, when a stronger Paris Agreement is to take effect?
Former Vice President Al Gore speaking about the economic transformation taking place globally because of the rapid shift to renewable energy sources at the US Climate Action Center during the America’s Pledge event. Photo by Justin Catanoso
This is the first story of its kind I’ve written for Mongabay. I had already written a full story about the America’s pledge event, led by California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. They pledged that an array of states, cities, universities, businesses and tribal nations had quickly formed a coalition after Trump announced June 1 his intention of pulling out of the Paris Agreement. Their goal — to keep the Obama administration’s carbon-reduction promises in the agreement.
There were so many so many compelling speakers, so many quotable comments that I could not get into the main story. So I put together a kind of photo essay with extended quotes that amplify and complement the main story. Read together, they tell a story all their own. My editor Glenn Scherer liked the idea and went with it. I’m glad he did.
The mayor of Pittsburgh (left) and the head of Walmart’s sustainability efforts, during the America’s pledge event. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Entrance to COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco in November 2016. Photo by Justin Catanoso
When two major and startling studies on climate change were released a few days apart — one by US scientists and the other by the World Meteorological Organization — I pitched my Mongabay Editor Glenn Scherer as news story tied to the Nov. 6 opening of COP23 in Bonn, Germany. He recommended get some outside comments and after a flurry of emails, I had compelling comments from sources at World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace and Corporate Accountability International. Fromthe story, linked here:
Both reports undermine the Trump administration’s hostile denialist stance on climate action and take a toll on the international credibility of the United States, at least at the federal level, at a moment of escalating environmental crisis on land, air and sea.
Delegate primary meeting hall at COP23 in Bonn, Germany. Photo by Justin Catanoso