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Biomass: a burning issue for European and U.S. forests

  • Pellets made from woody biomass are being touted as a cleaner alternative to traditional energy production methods.
  • However, a new report argues that subsidies aimed at the biomass industry are encouraging the clearing of forests in Europe and the U.S.
  • The report’s authors say the southeastern U.S. and Romania – home to Europe’s last “intact forest landsape” – are particularly under threat from biomass production.

European Union subsidies for the burning of woody biomass to create fuel and electricity are pushing forests in Europe and the U.S. to their breaking points, according to the NGO Fern.

In a recent report authored by the renowned science writer Fred Pearce, the group claims that the environmental impacts of the practice are being wilfully ignored as member states strive to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It says it is an example of “another green fuel turning into a green nightmare.”

The report, Up in Flames, looks at two case studies from the forest supply side in Romania and Slovakia in the Carpathian Mountains, an area that has been suffering greatly over the years due to illegal logging. It also discusses the power generation side of the equation: Drax power station in the UK and Gardanne in southern France both are slated to burn millions of metric tons of wood in the form of pellets through 2016.

As world leaders meet in Paris for the COP 21 summit, larger and deeper commitments to clean and renewable energy are dominating the debates. But observers say the drive to bioenergy precipitated by the EU’s 2020 renewable targets is having, and will continue to have, largely unforeseen harmful consequences to the environment. The bloc committed in 2007 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to under 20 percent of 1990 levels by the end of 2020.

Wood pellets in a production center in Germany. Wood pellets are made from compressed organic matter collectively called “biomass.” While they can be made from logging and milling leftovers, industry critics warn whole trees are often used in their production. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

Bioenergy as a whole, which includes biofuels and the burning of biomass, now accounts for 60 per cent of EU renewable energy. A recent five-month investigation carried out for the U.S. NGO Climate Central found, however, that such renewable sources of energy are not necessarily any cleaner than fossil fuels.

According to figures, published in the EU’s Forest Strategy in 2013, almost half of harvested wood biomass in member states is used for generating electricity and heating. It accounts for 5 percent of the bloc’s energy needs, a figure that is predicted to double by the end of the decade.

Wood has been burned and used as an energy source for centuries, but the Fern report warns that current subsidies and requirements will see production mushroom. Increasingly, the fuel is generated from wood pellets which have been heated and compressed and are estimated to double the energy content of every one-metric ton shipment.

Producers say that pellets are made using debris from timber operations or pulpy “residuals” from mills, and thus have a minimal environmental impact.

Global Forest Watch shows Romania lost around 258,500 hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2014. The country contains the only Intact Forest Landscape (IFL) in all of Europe, but it has been degraded, losing at least 800 hectares of tree cover since 2000.

“The bioenergy directive came in and there has been a huge increase in woody biomass sourced from EU forests,” Linde Zuidema, the leader of Fern’s bioenergy campaign, told Mongabay. “However we do not have a lot of forest ourselves so we import from abroad and burn in plants. With such large-scale bioenergy use we increase our carbon footprint.”

Romania provides a lot of the wood used for burning. The country has some of Europe’s largest tracts of old-growth beech forests but has lost an estimated 244,000 hectares of tree cover in the last decade, with illegal logging becoming so bad that it was declared a national emergency in May of this year.

Much of the wood finds its way to Austria, a large proportion of which is exported from Romania by Holzindustrie Schweighofer, a huge timber company controlled by one the Austria’s richest families.

The company has come under heavy criticism from environmental groups for their operations in Romania and are currently under investigation by the authorities following a report from EIA that claimed numerous batches of illegal timber were tracked to their mills.

Schweighofer denies those allegations, saying that the EU’s support for an increase in energy produced from biomass should be seen as a necessary part of making the most of the natural resources of Romania and the whole of Europe.

“Holzindustrie Schweighofer provides a responsible and efficient manner of processing wood, as well as a sustainable way of sourcing biomass. We harness every part of the raw material used in the technological process. Thus, not only does the company use round wood to produce high value added lumber products,” but it also brings value to wood residues by turning them into pellets and briquettes, the company said in a statement sent to Mongabay.

“Removing timber residues from a forest does not compromise the health of the soil or the wildlife habitat and puts no pressure on forestlands,” the statement reads. “If left there, timber residues would start decaying and release carbon into the atmosphere, thus impacting the climate.”

Carpathian mountain forest near the Romanian village of Capatinenii Ungureni. Photo by Thomas Einberger / Greenpeace.

But not everyone is convinced. In neighbouring Slovakia – a sparsely populated country where nearly half the land is forested – local NGOs say the amount of logging taking place, driven by demand for biomass, is simply unsustainable.

Local group WOLF are quoted in the Fern report as calculating from government statistics that ten million cubic meters of wood are logged each year while the sustainable yield is only six million cubic meters. About 3.5 million cubic meters are burned annually for energy and heating and thus, Fern says, represent nearly the entire overharvest.

WOLF says they have no issue with community-based biomass burning schemes but that the “assault” on Slovakia’s forests is driven by huge subsidies that has seen a dozen biomass power and heating stations spring up across the country.

The demand for wood from Europe is also impacting environments far from its borders. Exports of wood pellets from the U.S. to Europe doubled to 3.2 million metric tons between 2012 and 2013, and then increased by a further 40 percent in the following 12 months according to a report published in October by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC).

Eight states in the country’s biologically-rich Southeast – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia – now constitute the top exporting regions to the EU.

Although the area covers only 16 percent of the land mass of the lower 48 states, it has 65 per cent of the country’s bottomland hardwood forests that are home to endangered wildlife species including the Swainson’s warbler and the swallow-tailed kite.

The southeastern U.S. has experienced heavy deforestation. Global Forest Watch shows that the area indicated – where most pellet-wood is sourced – lost around 18 percent of its tree cover from 2001 through 2013. (However, it should be noted that some of this loss may be attributable to tree plantations and does not necessarily represent deforestation).
Thick forest covers Okefenokee Swamp in the U.S. state of Georgia. However, conservation organizations like the Dogwood Alliance say biomass production activities are encroaching on the swamp, putting it and its wildlife at risk. Photo by Moultrie Creek via Wikimedia Commons (CC 2.0).

The NRDC report states that only 10 percent of these forests are currently fully protected from industrial logging and, despite claims from wood pellet manufacturers and their customers, studies have concluded that residual material and debris created by logging operations alone are unlikely to satisfy biomass demand, meaning whole trees will need to be harvested more often specifically to produce pellets.

When produced, the wood pellets make a long journey, chiefly to the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands.

They are giving the UK’s large former coal-powered plants a second lease of life. This week the European Commission approved a £1 billion ($1.5 billion) subsidy for the Lynemouth plant in the country’s Northumberland region that would see it burn 1.5 million metric tons of pellets a year, largely imported from North America. The plant is due to close at the end of 2015 but could now re-open within 18 months.

Drax power station in Yorkshire already burns millions of tons of biomass in one of its plants, and is waiting on a further subsidy for another unit to be announced next year.

Paul Hodgson, their head of media relations, told Mongabay that switching from coal reduces carbon emissions from Drax power plants by 86 percent. He also says that all their wood from the U.S. is thoroughly sourced and subject to strict sustainability standards.

“We insist that all of suppliers meet tough sustainability standards and no contract will be signed unless these demands are met. This is written into the legal contract,” he said.

“Before any contract is signed we use independent auditors to visit each pellet mill and assess the evidence on the ground. Once we have an agreement if there is any evidence that our tough standards are not being met, we can terminate the contract.”

Opponents of this move, however, say that claims that energy generated in this way are “carbon neutral” is a myth.

Trucks bring felled timber to Kronospan sawmill in Romania. Kronospan manufactures a wide range of wood based panel products. Photo by Thomas Einberger/Greenpeace.
Timber await processing at Kronospan sawmill. Photo by Thomas Einberger/Greenpeace.

Recent investigations by the NGO Climate Central concluded that the EU had embraced a “carbon accounting loophole” based on the approach taken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Central (IPCC) which allows zero reporting of carbon emissions produced when wood is burned.

The group says that last year this would have equated to Europe burning 620 million barrels of oil undetected.

“It is worse for the air than coal,” said Linde Zuidema of Fern. “Wood burning creates such fine particles in the air and I know the [European] Commission is looking at this from the air quality perspective.”

“A more efficient use of biomass, for example, would be to store the carbon for longer rather than burning and emitting it immediately.”

Zuidema says that burning wood and importing it large distances from North America and elsewhere in Europe is simply too climate intensive, but confesses that “our hands are now tied a little bit” when it comes to moving forward.

“The EC is now considering its post 2020 climate and energy policy,” she told Mongabay. “We are saying that future subsidies should not be directed at forests or the production of biomass.”

In the meantime, she says that one of the things that could be done to reduce the problems and the strain on the continent’s forested areas would be simply for member states to ignore the huge subsidies offered by the bloc.

However, developments in the UK indicate this advice is being well and truly ignored for now.

Disclosure: In late December 2015, it came to light that the author was a public relations contractor for Greenpeace at the time of this story’s publication. The author says this affiliation did not influence his reporting. The story was independently edited and fact-checked by a Mongabay editor.