Tag Archives: UNFCCC

Environment  Mongabay: Missing the emissions for the trees: Biomass burning booms in East Asia

The Hadong power plant in South Korea co-fires coal with woody biomass, allowing it to claim it is reducing emissions under the UN loophole.
The Hadong power plant in South Korea co-fires coal with woody biomass, allowing it to claim it is reducing emissions under a carbon accounting loophole. Photo courtesy of Solutions for Our Climate.

This story here began 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.

My story was translated into Chinese. Here’s the Chinese language link.

Forest advocates have been arguing for years that burning wood for energy on an industrial scale poses a host of environmental threats while undermining climate action.
Forest advocates have been arguing for years that burning wood for energy on an industrial scale poses a host of environmental threats while undermining climate action; these include increased deforestation, elevated carbon emissions, loss of carbon sequestration capacity, and adverse biodiversity impacts. Image via Max Pixel.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: Hope old and new – COP26 focused on two largely unsung climate solutions

At the Climate Action Center at the Scottish Event Center in Glasgow, the picture-worthy sign #COP26 was filled with tropical plants. Every summit, attendees make sure to have their photo taken in front of the sign (including me).

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.

This photo collage that I took in my home office before leaving for Glasgow seems a fitting parting shot for my final story from COP26. Next year’s meeting, COP27, is planned for Cairo, Egypt.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: ‘Standing with your feet in the water’: COP26 struggles to succeed

With Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg leading protests both Friday and Saturday (Nov. 5-6, 2021) through the streets of central Glasgow, tens of thousands of people, mostly young people from around the world, mocked the proceedings of COP26, demanded “real” leadership, and didn’t let up even in driving wind and rain. The protests continued every day of the summit.

On Friday, November 12, I decided to take the morning off from COP26 to see a bit of Glasgow — the immense 12th-Glasgow Cathredral that reformationist John Knox changed from Catholic to Protestant, and the campus of the University of Glasgow, which I heard was the setting for Harry Potter movies. It wasn’t, but it could’ve been.

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.

EU lead negotiator Frans Timmermans showed the assemblage a photo of his 1-year-old grandson during his comments. Together, he said, the leaders at COP26 could assure Chase’s healthy future or assure a time when he “would be in a fight with other human beings for food and water.” The plenary erupted in applause as he thundered: “This is personal! This is not political.”

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26: E.U. is committed to forest biomass burning to cut fossil fuel use

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president (right), speaks during the COP26 press conference. E.U. minister Andrej Viziak of Slovenia is on left.

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.

Christian Rakos, president of the World Bioenergy Association, which is based in Stockholm. The EU burns an estimated 31 million metric tons of woody biomass annually for energy and heat. Rakos believes this burning of wood is far better than burning coal as well as environmentally sustainable — in the EU. His is less familiar with the industry’s impact on forests in the Southeastern U.S. and British Columbia.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26 Glasgow Declaration: Salvation or threat to Earth’s forests?

Deforestation in West Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia on land likely to be converted to oil palm plantation. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

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.

Environment  Mongabay: Forest biomass-burning supply chain from US to Europe is producing major carbon emissions: Studies

This story came 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.

The citizen-supported journalism site WhoWhatWhy republished my story here.

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.

Anti-biomass protesters outside the EU headquarters in Brussels in summer 2021 when delegates were debating possible changes to the Renewable Energy Directive. Few substantive changes were made regarding biomass burning, carbon accounting or subsidies.

Environment  Mongabay: 500+ experts call on world’s nations to not burn forests to make energy

A forest biomass plant in the U.S. Southeast. The industry insists it does not use healthy, whole trees for wood pellet production, using instead crooked, diseased trees or lumber waste, tree tops and woody residue. This photo tells a far different story. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

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.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP25 — Self-serving G20 spites youth, humanity, world at climate talks


Two empty chairs on the set of a COP25 broadcast outlet seemed to symbolize the failing ambition and lack of integrity on display at the Madrid summit.

That’s not what hope looks like, is it? But those empty chairs, as soon as I saw them outside the main plenary hall at #COP25 in Madrid, I recognized a metaphor for this disturbing and deeply disappointing climate summit (story linked here).

Listen to Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, whom I interviewed after a panel discussion in which he participated:

“In the last 10 years following the climate talks, they have never been as bleak and disappointing as this conference. The science is staring us in the face and school children are taking to the streets in their millions, and yet at the global climate summit countries are blocking progress and watering down climate action.  It’s disgraceful and politicians are simply not doing their job of protecting the planet.

“We need to see countries committing to new and improved climate plans next year. That regular review and ratchet mechanism was what made the Paris agreement an effective tool for reducing emissions, but countries are dragging their feet and they are putting us all in danger.”

My final story from my sixth climate summit details what happened and didn’t happen, and in the final section, explains why. It all comes down to leadership. And until the U.S. reengages in this process in a positive, not destructive way, hopes for the Paris Agreement coming close to achieving its climate mitigation goals will be remote.


Seen here on a TV monitor in the media center, Ugandan activist Hilda Flavia Nakabuye pleads angrily with COP25 delegates: “Please listen: if you don’t know how to fix it, stop breaking it.”

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP25 — EU officials say biomass burning policy to come under critical review


A forest industry pine plantation in the U.S. Southeast. Not only is biomass for energy not carbon neutral, it also transforms biodiversity-rich native forests into tree farms, which are close to being biodiversity deserts. Photo courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

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.

My new Italian journalist friend Andrea Borolini of Milan took this photo of the closed-circuit TV in the Media Center as I asked my one question during the EU press conference on December 12, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Just right of me is Italian journalist and friend Emi Barbiriglio, who urged me to join her at this press conference.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay@COP25: Indonesian dam raises questions about UN hydropower carbon loophole


Tapanuli Orangutans (Pongo tapanuliensis): Adult male on left, and adult female on right. Batang Toru Forest, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Tim Laman under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  license.

This story here, my third of ultimately five stories from COP25 in Madrid, Spain, was truly a team effort. It also illustrates the challenge and thrill of journalism — learning a new topic from scratch, finding just the right sources you’ve never met before, working with an editor in Indonesia and one in Vermont to put together a complex and nuanced environmental story about an ecologically sensitive part of the world (North Sumatra) with an rare and endangered great ape (Tapanuli orangutan).

Thanks to Isabel Esterman, Mongabay’s Indonesian editor, and Glenn Scherer, my editor at Mongabay, for putting me on to the story, then assisting prodigiously in putting all the pieces together about an Indonesian hydroelectric company, a dam-in-the-jungle project, the Tapanulis’ habitat and a serious question over carbon emissions.

Indonesia’s pavilion at the UN climate summit in Madrid.