This story demonstrates the significance of a definition, in this case: what exactly is renewable energy? In September, the European Union punted on an opportunity to correct what forest advocates and climate scientists stress is an erroneous definition, that burning forest biomass is a renewable energy source, as this story explains. But as I report here, the liberal Australian government, persuaded by a relentless pro-forest campaign, reversed its existing policy to note that burning forest biomass is not a renewable energy source.
With that definition change, Australia virtually halted the ever-growing biomass industry — which is thriving in the United Kingdom , EU and Asia — from getting started Down Under. It represents a rare global win for environmentalists who have been battling the industry for years. And it raises a vexing question: how can major economies have polar opposite definitions of renewable energy during a climate crisis? And how can the United Nations’ governing body on climate change stay silent on this discrepancy?
This story posted on Wednesday, December 21, a time when people are distracted by the holidays and other grim world news. Yet this story drew more readers around the world than perhaps any I’ve written for Mongabay. Just one tweet by Mongabay drew more than 5000 likes, 1350+ retweets and 115+ comments — numbers I’ve never come close to with previous stories. Mongabay social media coordinator Erik Hoffner tells me the story ranked as the 6th best-read Mongabay story of 2022 and it posted just days before Christmas. It also got a big boost from tweets by noted environmentalist Bill McKibbon, which attracted even more global attention, as did tweets in Dutch posted by forest advocate Fenna Swart.
This story follows up on a one I wrote last spring (2022) regarding the negotiations around possible revisions to the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which is evaluated every three years. Of peak interest has been whether members of parliament would change their view toward the continent’s use of woody biomass for heat and energy and its impact on global forests.
Biomass accounts for more than 60 percent of the EU’s renewable energy portfolio — but legions of scientists continue to argue there is nothing renewable about burning biomass, at least at it compares to zero-carbon wind and solar.
While parliamentary committees for the first time recommended changes in subsidies for woody biomass and increased protections for Europe’s forests — which provide the bulk of the EU’s pellet production — the outcome appears far different. Yes, it calls for phasing down of subsidies, estimated at $13 billion annually. It also calls for protection of natural forests, saying only lumber residue and damaged trees can be used for pellets. But forests advocates explained to me that the amendments that were approved are vague enough to not change EU woody biomass consumption — or the emissions they produce — at least for the next three years.
This view was essentially supported by a statement by US-based Enviva, the world’s largest pellet maker, that hailed the RED amendments as a victory for the bioenergy industry.
Here’s the big thing: an amendment that would declassify woody biomass as a renewable energy source, on par with wind and solar (a well-reported error that began with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) was rejected. This, too, was cheered by the bioenergy industry.
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 the Peruvian Andes, June 2018. Photo by Nathan Allen, Wake Forest University student.
In early November, just after the midterm elections where the Democrats took back the House of Representatives, with many new members calling for a Green New Deal (action on climate change), a group of students in Greensboro, N.C., from UNC-Greensboro, Guilford College and N.C. A&T State, fanned out across the community to gather the thoughts and insights of a variety of people involved in some way in environmental protection, renewable energy and climate change. Kathe Latham, a local environmental activist asked if I would be interviewed on camera by two Guilford students — Christina Gaviria and Ian Gordan. I agreed; we talked on a rainy Friday in my den.
The result is here with this well shot and edited YouTube video. It’s part of RF100, a community mapping project to chronicle local leaders speaking out on this important issue. The following week, a big crowd filled every seat at Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro to view the various videos and talk about how they can urge local leaders to do more when it comes to sustainability efforts. The quick answer: local leaders can and should do more. A lot more.
New wind turbines in the North Sea off Germany. Renewable resources account for 30 perent of Germany’s power generation, more than twice what the U.S. produces. Photo: NY Times.
Justin Gillis, the New York Times’ climate change reporter, writes: “Of all the developed nations, few have pushed harder than Germany to find a solution to global warming. And towering symbols of that drive are appearing in the middle of the North Sea.” The Sept. 13, 2014 story is here.
Excerpt: Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.