David Boraks, a talented environmental reporter for WFAE-Charlotte, the second-largest public radio station in North Carolina (reaching lots of South Carolina), contacted me in December after my Mongabay story regarding the Enviva whistleblower. He, too, has covered Enviva and its impact on communities and the environment in the poor counties where it operates, four out of 10 of which are in North Carolina.
David invited me to join him in a detailed discussion on the popular noontime news program Charlotte Talks. We discussed the wood pellet industry, its impact on the Southeastern US and the policies overseas that enable this controversial energy source to keep proliferating.
As Derb Carter, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Boraks: “What’s happening in North Carolina is the forests are being cut and exported to Europe. None of that is used to produce anything benefiting North Carolina in any way. And you’re losing that carbon storage in the forest.”
The Samcheonpo power plant in South Korea co-fires with coal and woody biomass, allowing it to claim it is reducing emissions under a carbon accounting loophole. Image courtesy of Solutions for Our Climate.
This story, my first of 2023, came from NGO sources I developed in Spring 2022 when writing about the explosive growth of woody biomass for energy in Japan and South Korea. At the time, Russia’s unprovoked and devastating war with Ukraine was just starting and Europe was still importing tons of wood pellets from Russia, providing billions of dollars to the Russian war effort.
NATO countries decided in July to ban Russian imports as part of escalating sanctions. Little known at the time, but revealed in late December by three different organizations, South Korea — ignoring its Western allies — took advantage of the Russian surplus and allegedly took all the pellets Russia would ship. NGOs is South Korea, Europe and the United States are livid, as my story explains. Moreover, it appears Russia has figured out how to get around the European ban by laundering its pellets through neighboring countries. All to help pay for the most egregious war crimes in Europe since World War II.
As my source in South Korea told me: “We are deeply ashamed that our government is allowing the purchase of products associated with both a humanitarian and climate crisis…”
My December stories on the wood pellets industry, from the Enviva whistleblower to the policy changes in The Netherlands and Australia, have attracted attention from other journalists, including those working in Denmark, Germany, and the U.S. My colleague Erik Hoffner knows radio host Alex Wise, with Sea Change Radio in the Bay Area of California. Wise was eager to talk with me about my December coverage on his program, which focuses on issues related to climate change and sustainability.
Here’s our interview. Included midway is a fabulous Hank Williams song Settin’ the Woods on Fire, which adds a little levity to an otherwise serious set of issues. Sea Change Radio is carried weekly on more than 80 radio stations coast to coast in the U.S. and up into Alaska.
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.
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.
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.
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.”