The interesting thing about the facts that are the heart of this story of mine: it all sounds so familiar. Burning forest biomass causes enormous amount of emissions and hazardous pollutants from both the manufacturing process and the burning-for-energy process? Don’t we know this already?
Well, yes and no. Forest and public health advocates have been decrying for as long as I’ve been covering this issue the harmful impacts from every process that is the wood pellet industry — from clearcutting native forests that reduce carbon sinks and degrade biodiversity, to emissions from drying wood before its pressed into pellets, to pollution from the transportation sector to move pellets from one place to another, and finally, enormous emissions from burning these pellets instead of coal.
Because so much is assumed — and obvious (like the obvious health hazards of smoking cigarettes for years) — we assume, too, that there are rigorous scientific studies that prove what so many assume. This may be true in Europe, but it has not been true in the United States — until the 2023 publication of the study that is focus of my story.
This research is enormously important given the growth of the wood pellet industry and the growing interest across the United States to start burning wood for energy and claim — erroneously — that it’s a legitimate climate solution. There is no legitimate science that supports that industry claim. I am glad Mongabay continues to cover this issue closely. Sadly, this important study was not covered by any other news media.
While I didn’t travel to Dubai in 2023 to cover the 28th UN climate summit, my editor and I did plan a story to coincide with the come. Here it is. It’s a story I got turned on to at COP26 in Glasgow two years ago — the role climate litigation was playing around the world in an attempt to force climate action and emission reductions from countries, states, regions, and corporations. All summit agreements, including the historic Paris Agreement, are voluntary and carry no enforcement provisions when climate-related promises are invariably broken.
Thousands of lawsuits are in the pipeline globally, especially in the United States, and there have been dramatic wins in a variety of courtrooms from Montana to Amsterdam. But as my story explains, expecting lawsuits to quickly enforce necessary climate mitigation amidst a climate crisis is a longshot at best. As one of my legal sources told me, “There’s a lot of energy and activity going into these (legal) actions, but it’s too early to say whether it moves the needle.”
Thanks to my good friend John Knox — a Wake Forest law school professor, an expert on international environmental law, and a former UN special representative on human rights and climate change — for connecting me to several expert sources in New York and London for this story.
I was in the air on a Delta flight to Bozeman, Montana, on November 9, 2023, when I received a text message from a source: Enviva‘s stock was collapsing and the company had warned in a financial disclosure what it “may not be able to continue as a going concern.” I didn’t exactly see this coming, but ultimately, having written in May about Enviva’s unexpected financial tanking in the first quarter, I wasn’t fully surprised.
As I read the breaking news coverage from the environmental and business press about the near fall of the world’s largest producer of wood pellets for industrial-scale burning for energy instead of coal, I saw an enormous gap — even in The Wall Street Journal. All the stories recited the staggering losses and the new, interim CEO’s positive spin on a desperate situation. But none of the stories could explain why a billion-dollar company with long-term contracts around the world, and where demand for pellets is at a record high, had lost more than $250 million this year and exhausted a $570 million line of credit.
That’s the only story I wanted to write, and it’s linked here. Enviva’s travails are acknowledged — in carefully shrouded accounting language — in its public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But I am fortunate to have as a source a former Enviva maintenance manager at two of its 10 Southeastern US mills. I interviewed him once I got settled in Montana and again when I returned to North Carolina. Based solely on his experience at Enviva over two years — 2020-20222 — he was able to explain the plausible whys and hows behind the staggering losses. This source, still unnamed for reasons of privacy and security, was my whistleblower in December 2022 in a story that reverberated globally.
This story quickly attracted international attention, too. In fact, it ranked as the No. 1 best-read story on the Mongabay website in November with more than 85,000 readers; that’s a lot. Better still, by year-end, my report made the list of 10 Most Read Stories of 2023, ranking sixth. As yet, though, it’s not clear yet what the ultimate ramifications of this downfall will be on the highly subsidized global market for forest biomass and the countries that have come to rely on this scientifically denounced form of energy in a climate crisis.
Radio journalist Rachel Lewis Hilburn, host of Coastline, a weekly program on WHQR public radio in Wilmington, North Carolina, had been following my coverage of the wood pellet industry over the past year. Of particular interest were the stories that focused on Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, which has four manufacturing plants in eastern North Carolina.
When we spoke by phone to discuss her program, she was not only interested in my coverage, but also my reporting process, my working with a key anonymous whistleblower who once worked for Enviva, the distinction between environmental journalism and environmental advocacy, and what lessons I share with my journalism students at Wake Forest University.
Here’s the result, a wide-ranging, live-to-tape 50-minute discussion in three segments in which Rachel’s innate curiosity and enthusiastic interviewing style directed me through all of those issues and a few more. I really appreciated the opportunity to talk with her and her listeners. Thanks also to producer George Newman at WFDD on the Wake Forest campus for preparing the studio in which I spoke remotely with Rachel.
This storyis a follow up to my breaking news story in early October regarding Pope Francis‘ spirited addendum to his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si in defense of planet earth. In his concise, 13-page letter to “people of all faiths,” the pope makes clear his grave disappointment in leaders of the industrialized world to act with urgency to combat the accelerating climate crisis.
My goal with the follow up story, planned in consultation with my Mongabay editor Glenn Scherer, was to interview a range of sources in religious climate activism, theologians and climate policy makers. The timing of the new papal letter, called Laudate Deum, is clearly designed to challenge the national leaders who will meet in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in early December for the 28th United Nations climate summit. My sources weighed in not only the Francis’ new criticisms and exhortations but also described a faith-based movement for climate action that emerged after the 2015 Paris Agreement in decline and disarray.
My first call was to the Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of New York City-based GreenFaith, whom I first met in Paris at the 21st climate summit, and who has been a good source ever since.
“Most religious organizations and leaders, with few exceptions, are not doing enough,” Harper told me. “Once-a-year sermons are not enough. Building gardens behind your church or temple or mosque are not enough. We need people willing to stand up to governments and major financial institutions and say: ‘You are destroying the planet. And you have to stop.’ ”
Other sources weighed in thoughtfully about the pope’s moral authority, the struggle for climate action in Latin America, and the need for a moral compass in the upcoming climate negotiations. It’s a lot. And this pope is once again doing what no other global leader is doing with such clarity. With time running out to slow the rate of global warming and thus head off even worse impacts from climate change, the question remains: are people listening?
This story about the 20th anniversary meeting of a pioneering tropical research coalition came about for two reasons: 1) my first grandchild, Simon Catanoso, made his entrance into the world more an a week before his due date, thus opening the way for me to head to Peru, and 2) the 10th anniversary of the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group (ABERG) was the start of a new journalistic career path for me — climate change and climate policy — that ultimately led me to Mongabay.
A Spanish language version of the story, published on Mongabay LATAM, is here.
Since my first trip to Peru in 2013 at the insistence of my Wake ForestUniversity colleague and collaborator Miles Silman, a top tropical ecologist and co-founder of ABERG, I’ve returned nearly a dozen times. Once to cover COP20 in 2014, the UN climate summit that set the stage for the 2015 Paris Agreement, which I covered for Mongabay, with funding support from the The Andrew Sabin Family Center for Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest. Later, I returned multiple times as a communications consultant from Wake Forest for an influential NGO, CINCIA in Puerto Maldonado, founded in part by Miles with grants from USAID and World Wildlife Fund. In 2018, Miles and I developed a four-week summer program in tropical ecology and science writing and have brought four groups of Wake Forest students to the Amazon since then. Wake Forest featured our program online and in print.
Along the way, I’ve climbed a learning curve in climate science, forest and ecosystem mechanics, and biodiversity necessity that has enabled a late-career pivot to environmental journalism, mostly for Mongabay, that I simply could not have imagined when I left newspaper journalism in 2011. I am beyond grateful to Miles and host of environmental scientists, NGOs and forest campaigners over the past decade for assisting me in my immersion into covering parts of the most important story on earth, bar none — the existential threat to human life on earth wrought by human-induced climate change.
At ABERG10, held in the Andean village of Pisac, not from from Cuzco, I knew so little I was reluctant to interview the top tropical ecologists from around the world who gathered for that meeting, even though I was the only journalist there. Still, my coverage of ABERG10 was published in National Geograpic Online, as well as radio stories in WUNC and WFDD in North Carolina.
Ten years later, at ABERG20, many of those same scientists have become trusted sources, the issues they discussed and findings they presented are now familiar, and the context of complexity in their data gathering is something I’ve witnessed myself many times. The lead investigators and graduate students who make up ABERG are contributing to one of the most unique and vital longitudinal research projects in the global tropics across a range of topics.
My goal with the story here was to capture the essence of ABERG, its amazing transect, and its overlapping studies while highlighting a few of the scientists whose devotion to understanding the impact of warming temperatures on a warm and globally vital ecosystem remains strong and growing stronger.
ABERG’s study field for more than 20 years, off in the distance. My photo from 2013.
In my story, I describe the unique transect that Miles planned and oversaw the installation of starting in 2003 — more than 20 1-hectare plots on a single slope of the Andes stretching down from 12,000 feet to lowlands near sea level. This 2013 photo of mine accurately captures the ruggedness of each plot. What you can’t see is just how difficult these plots are to access, located as they are on a single, rough trail carved by Incans more than 500 years ago and used only by scientists and cocoa smugglers.
What the meticulous work of evaluating the impact of climate change on 1255 tree species along the transect looks like. My photo from 2013.
Miles Silman, ABERG co-founder and architect of the elevational gradient/transect, organized ABERG20 and opened the conference with a brief history of the group’s origins and aspirations. My photo from June 2023.
Extensive logging of remote mountains on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, feeds the timber industry. Many of the trees taken here are old growth, more than 200 years in age. Timber companies typically replace the natural forest with monoculture tree farms that lack biodiversity and sequester far less carbon than the original natural forests. Image by Justin Catanoso.
ECOLOGISTS and climate activists spend a lot of time, justifiably, decrying the always-growing rate of international deforestation. What they rarely look at, evaluate or consider, is the impact of global logging for the timber and biofuel industries. This story describes a major study published in July 2023 in the prestigious journal Nature about the impact that logging has on contributing far more to global carbon emissions than ever imagined.
The study, by a several researchers backed by World Resources Institutes presents staggering figures involving current and future demand for wood products and the impact is/will have on global tree cover, and thus, carbon sequestration from intact forests. It is, like too many of my stories, startling and dispiriting, especially when you consider the many “treaties” nations have signed, as recently as COP26 in Glasgow, to halt deforestation. Of course, those treaties always involve loopholes the logging industry has demanded and received.
The summer of 2023 has brought every single day a reminder of the climate catastrophes people are the world are enduring — massive wildfires in Canada, record temperatures in Mexico and the US Southwest, vicious storms and flooding in the Northeast, deadly heatwaves across southern Europe and India. Every forest felled for short-term profit makes the earth less able to slow the rate of warming, and the rate of calamity. This study in Nature makes clear that policy changes in logging are a near-term requirement, and even points to solutions that are close to plausible while actually preserving most of the forests policymakers have pledged to protect.
Note: this is a major study by top scientists with a leading NGO published in the most prestigious scientific journal. The Times and Post and others have been busy reporting every day on the horrible weather events this summer. None bothered to cover a significant root cause and potential solutions. That’s not how we get out of this climate crisis.
This 52-acre native forest in Edenton, North Carolina, U.S., was clear cut in late 2022 for both timber and for whole trees chipped to make wood pellets for bioenergy. The site was cleared for industrial development. Only trees for landscaping were to be replanted. Clear cuts like this around the world diminish global carbon storage. Image by Justin Catanoso.
In April 2022, President Biden instructed the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to do a thorough inventory of forested public lands as a part of his climate mitigation strategies to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 50% by 2030.
The new study, released April 20, identifies a total of 112 million acres of mature and old-growth forests on federal lands across all 50 states, an area larger than the state of California.
Forest advocates largely heralded the new inventory, so long as it serves as a road map for putting those millions of acres off-limits to logging so the forests and their biodiversity can remain intact to fight climate change.
A 60-day public comment period, starting late April 2023, will determine whether federal rules will actually help fulfill President Biden’s ambitious climate goals or continue to allow logging of irreplaceable ecosystems in forests lands that are already shrinking and critical to overall climate mitigation.
My colleague Jeremy Hance edited the story and agreed to include the 8-minute video from my 2021 story that features Oregon forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala.
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.”
Logged trees for biomass in Bischofsheim, Germany. Image by 7C0 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Thisstory describes the final revisions to a multi-year process in the European Union that led to a largely status quo rendering of the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive, especially as it applies to burning forest biomass for energy and heat as a means of reducing coal burning.
Before the debates in Brussels even got started in earnest in 2021, hoped was raised in Madrid, Spain, at the end of the United Nations climate summit, COP25, when Frans Timmermans, the Dutch politician who is the EU’s top environmental minister, answered a question of mine regarding biomass energy and whether not counting emissions at the smokestack was skewing emission-reduction accounting. Timmmermans’ response — that it was time to take a close look at regulations regarding biomass because new science had emerged — sent a wave of hope through European forest advocates.
If Timmermans was willing to follow the science, they reasoned, certainly changes were possible that would protect native forests, reduce or eliminate subsidies for purchasing wood pellets, and most importantly, reverse the science-challenged definition of woody biomass as a renewable energy source equal to zero-carbon wind and solar. Australia made this definition change policy in December 2022.
After two years of intense lobbying, special documentaries, investigative reporting, overwhelming public opposition, letters signed by hundreds of EU scientists and clear evidence that exchanging coal for wood is not only adding to deforestation globally but adding to emissions as well, the changes in the third iteration of RED are minimal — at best. My story explains the details. This quote captures the alarm and disappointment:
“The revised RED is not based on advancing scientific or even pragmatic insights as we fought and hoped for years,” Fenna Swart, a forest advocate with The Netherlands’ Clean Air Committee, told Mongabay. “It is only a political solution for key stakeholders… for an unsolved global problem.” Stakeholders who benefit, she said, include northern European member states with large harvestable forests such as Sweden and Finland, and the forestry and energy industries.
As I witnessed during a reporting trip to the North Carolina coast in November 2022, native forests are falling at a constant and growing rate to enable Marylond-based Enviva, the world’s largest maker of wood pellets, to meet accelerating demand for wood pellets in Europe, the United Kingdom and Asia — all because of deeply flawed national policies at the worst possible time in the climate crisis. Deforestation in harvest areas of North Carolina is estimated at 6 percent a year and will only increase an Enviva’s wood pellet production doubles by 2027. This photo of mine is of Enviva’s smallest plant in Ahoskie, NC.