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.
This story of mine from The Netherlands appears to illustrate a small crack in the near-universal political support for biomass usage in the European Union. Is it a harbinger of more change in biomass policy as the EU moves in June 2021 to consider revisions to its Renewable Energy Directive II?
For a small country, just 17.3 million people, The Netherlands holds an outsized influence in the EU, and the new make up of its parliament (national elections were held March 17, 2021) could determine the fate of biomass subsidies in a country that is one of the largest importers of wood pellets from the US Southeast.
Small victories like this are celebrated by environmentalists, but the biomass industry continues to grow rapidly in scale and revenue. For all the science that illustrates the importance of keeping forests intact, and how burning wood pellets is more polluting than burning coal, the industry presses a different point of view and interpretation of the science that continues to hold sway with policy makers. Consider this response in my story from the president of the World Bioenergy Association:
“My take on the Dutch decision is that it is as wrong and poorly informed as the Brexit decision in the U.K.,” said Christian Rakos, responding from Austria. “It is based on campaigns that have not told the truth. The fact is, the Netherlands is currently among the worst-performing countries in Europe when it comes to renewable energy use and this [biomass] decision will further deteriorate its performance in terms of climate protection.”
He added: “Our position is to do everything possible to ensure [forest] sustainability, but to keep in mind that climate change is the greatest threat to ecosystems at present, and that it will be impossible to mitigate it without extensive use of bioenergy.”
Rakos is correct about The Netherlands and renewable energy usage. It still gets as much as 90 percent of its energy from fossil fuels. But most of its “renewable” energy comes from burning wood. As leading biomass expert Mary Booth told me: “We’re not going to burn our way out of the climate crisis.”
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.
Here’s how this story came about. In November 2019, I interviewed Michael Regan, then secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, following his appearance on a panel at Wake Forest University, where I am on the faculty. My colleague Stan Meiburg, who heads our graduate program in sustainability and retired from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 as deputy administrator after 39 years at the agency, helped me secure 30 minutes with Regan.
At the time, I was part of a three-reporter team working on a series of stories for The News & Observer of Raleighabout the impact of the biomass industry on North Carolina’s forests and air quality. A generous grant from the Pulitzer Center underwrote the project. Anyway, Regan was surprising blunt in his criticism of woody biomass as an energy source and sided with the science that concluded that burning biomass was not carbon neutral. Those views had already been translated into North Carolina policy under the state’s Clean Energy Plan.
When President Biden nominated Regan as his new EPA administrator, I reviewed a transcript of my interview with him, understood from previous reporting that biomass was an unsettled issue at EPA, and thought Mongabay readers would be want to know where he unambiguously stands on this issue. My editor, Glenn Scherer, agreed. I added additional reporting and interviews, and we got the story posted.
Update: In a bipartisan vote and support from both Republican senators from North Carolina, Regan won easy Senate-approval to this cabinet position in early March 2021. He becomes the first Black male to head the EPA.
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 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.”
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:
I had been looking for an opportunity to write another story regarding woody biomass and the dubious United Nations policy that allows the accelerating pollution from burning those pellets for energy in the United Kingdom and across the European Union to be ignored in carbon accounting mandates. The opening came in mid-June when the UK announced plans to legislate that it would achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Many cheered the less-than ambitious goal; if serious greenhouse gas reductions aren’t achieved globally by 2030, the International Panel on Climate Change has warned, nature will not be forgiving as floods, heat waves, drought, sea-level rise, wildfires, ferocious storms, disease and dislocation morph from crisis to calamity.
This story in Mongabay, which my editor Glenn Scherer welcomed and enhanced, explains as clearly and fairly as I can the danger to the planet of implicitly encouraging deforestation to produce wood pellets to be burned for energy with no obligation to report those carbon emissions.
This story, linked here, is far and away the most important one I’ve reported and written in the five climate summits I’ve covered dating back to Lima, Peru, in 2014. It demonstrates politics triumphing over science, and it could not come at a worse time. In a conference dedicated to technical details, the unwillingness to accurately account for the escalating carbon emissions coming from burning wood for energy in the UK, throughout the EU and increasingly in Asia, amounts to a crime against nature — who is not fooled by what one source called “fraudulent accounting.”
An excerpt from my story:
“Let’s be clear about this: delegates from developed countries are well aware of this dangerous loophole as they draft the Paris Rulebook that could be designed to remedy the problem at the 24th U.N. climate summit, or COP24, here in Katowice, Poland. Yet they have ignored the pleas, the scientific data, the detailed charts identifying the danger, submitted by impassioned NGOs over the past week and a half.”
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.