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.
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?
I learned in early September from a close friend and good Catholic that Pope Francis would release an addendum to Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home. That historic and landmark encyclical on the defense of the planet, excoriated the greed, consumption and bad policy decisions that were driving climate change and damaging “God’s creation.” I knew immediately that I would be returning to a favorite beat of mine, the intersection of faith and climate action. With Laudate Deum, just 13 pages (compared to 180 pages in Laudato Si), Francis emerges again as perhaps the strongest, most authoritative voice in the world for aggressive environmental protection while unsparingly identifying those who are standing in the way.
This story here reports the breaking news from the document, release October 4 by the Vatican on the Catholic feast day of St. Francis, the pope’s nature-loving namesake. I will follow soon with an in-depth global reaction to Laudate Deum and an analysis of how faith leaders are — and are not — meeting the pope’s challenge to protect natural places, reduce consumption and pushback against political leaders who seek to enrich themselves and their allies at the expense of their communities, the poor and the planet itself.
From Laudate Deum, the pope writes: “Eight years have passed since I published the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, when I wanted to share with all of you, my brothers and sisters of our suffering planet, my heartfelt concerns about the care of our common home. Yet, with the passage of time, I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”
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.
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.
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.
Forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala of Wild-Heritage in Oregon has been eager to produce high-quality, verifiable maps of remaining intact, mature and old-growth forests across the continental United States. He and I have been discussing the potential for such mapping to help create what he and colleague Bev Law of Oregon State call a Strategic Carbon Reserve, akin the the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that presidents call upon when gas prices spike or OPEC suppliers manipulate global oil supplies.
The carbon reserve would act as a protected carbon sink in the US that would remain intact, biodiverse and capable of continuing — and even expanding over time — its capacity to sequester greenhouse gases to help slow the rate of global warming. This story heredescribes the outcome of a new study (October 2022) in which DellaSala teamed with a group of forest ecologists to produce the first ever coast-to-coast mapping of such valuable, vulnerable forests.
President Biden in April 2022 requested similar mapping from his departments of Interior and Agriculture for the purpose to protecting more forests on federal land to help him meet his Paris Agreement GHG-reduction goals by 2030. DellaSala’s study will serve as a baseline comparison in April 2023 when the federal maps are due to make sure timber interests and forestry corporations don’t pressure the U.S. agencies to produce maps more favorable to logging than conservation.
An expanse of legally clearcut forest in northwest Washington state. While national park forests are fully protected, just 24% of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management forests are fully protected, with the rest at various levels of risk. I took this photo just outside fully protected Olympic National Park in July 2022.
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.