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Carbon to burn: UK net-zero emissions pledge undermined by biomass energy

  • The United Kingdom and the European Union are setting goals to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But that declaration is deeply flawed, analysts say, due to a long-standing United Nations carbon accounting loophole that turns a blind eye toward the conversion of coal burning power plants to burning wood pellets.
  • While the cutting of trees to convert them to wood pellets to produce energy is ultimately carbon neutral — if an equal number of new trees are planted — the regrowth process requires 50 to 100 years. That means wood pellets burned today, and in coming decades, will be adding a massive carbon load to the atmosphere.
  • That carbon will add significantly to global warming — bringing more sea level rise, extreme weather, and perhaps, climate catastrophe — even as official carbon counting by the UN provides a false sense of security that we are effectively reducing emissions to curb climate change.
  • Unless the biomass loophole is dealt with, the risk is very real that the world could easily overshoot its Paris Agreement targets, and see temperatures rise well above the 1.5 degrees Celsius safe limit. At present, there is no official move to address the biomass loophole.
The Drax power stations in the United Kingdom, one of the largest users of woody biomass for energy production. The Drax biomass dome, seen here, once burned coal but now burns wood pellets and chips, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Photo credit: DECCgovuk on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND.

Last week, the United Kingdom announced plans to pass a national law setting a country-wide target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, to be achieved by 2050. The pronouncement came in response to a directive by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, that all 28 European Union nations set binding 2050 net-zero emissions reduction goals.

Those nations are meeting in the next two days to discuss the issue.

Given that the national carbon reductions set by the Paris Agreement are voluntary, the fact that UK and EU climate-mitigation strategies may soon carry the weight of law is being cheered by some climate-action advocates.

“As the first major industrialized country to legislate for a target of net-zero emissions by 2050, the UK is demonstrating the leadership the world so desperately needs,” Baroness Bryony Worthington, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund Europe said in a statement. “Other countries can and must take steps to up their ambitions, too.”

When the biomass industry hypes wood pellets, people often imagine the product as being consumed in small household wood burning pellet stoves. The reality is quite different and large-scale, with industrial burning of chips and pellets to make electricity, as seen here at the Drax biomass plant in Britain. Photo credit: nican45 on / CC BY-NC-SA.

The biomass loophole

However, some scientists and environmentalists are neither impressed nor encouraged; they are expressing deep concern that the binding emissions laws will likely be flawed by a monstrously large carbon-pollution loophole.

While the UK has pledged to burn coal for the last time by 2025, it is accelerating plans to replace that source by burning wood pellets, or biomass, in four of its six largest power plants, located in North Yorkshire and operated by Drax Power, the country’s largest utility.

While that shift would help meet the terms of the Paris Agreement, say experts, it would still pump vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, speeding and intensifying global warming.

Worrying environmentalists further: former coal-fired plants across the EU, especially in Denmark and Belgium, are also fast converting to wood pellets, encouraged by a longstanding loophole in global carbon accounting that was not closed in the writing of the Paris rulebook last December during the 24th United Nations Climate Summit in Poland.

In fact, studies show that the burning of wood pellets actually produces more heat-trapping carbon dioxide than coal, because it requires more pellets than coal to produce the same amount of energy. Yet, because wood pellets are classified by the United Nations as a renewable resource — putting the carbon-intensive energy source on equal footing with zero-carbon wind and solar energy — the biomass greenhouse emissions from Drax and other converted power plants are, and will continue to be, officially deemed carbon neutral and are not counted as emissions at all.

Nature will not be fooled by the cooked books.

Governments “will say those pellets are carbon neutral, but as many groups have tried to communicate, our issue is one of time,” explained climate expert Kelsey Perlman with Fern, a forest-and-climate advocacy group in Brussels. “Putting too much carbon into the atmosphere too quickly is going to blow up the [national carbon-reduction] targets.”

The Paris Agreement seeks to keep global temperatures below a 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) increase over pre-industrial levels by 2100 — a Herculean task given that global emissions haven’t yet peaked. And that’s a vitally important goal to achieve, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in October 2018, when it reported that we have just 12 years to dramatically and permanently reduce carbon emissions — in reality, not just on paper — or risk catastrophic climate impacts.

Thousands of trees stacked like cordwood wait to be turned into wood pellets for overseas shipment, mostly to the UK and EU, at one of three pellet-making plants in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

Real or imagined emission cuts?

Here’s the gist of the biomass rationale, or scam, depending on one’s perspective: biomass advocates (including lobbyists in the highly influential forest products industry), say that you can cut down carbon-filled trees to burn as wood pellets, then plant new trees to absorb the carbon released from the cut and burned trees.

There is general scientific consensus around the plausibility of this approach being carbon neutral — but, say critics, not on the day the pellets are burned and when the new trees are planted.

Rather, researchers estimate it will take 50 to 100 years for saplings planted today to absorb today’s emissions, and achieve a net-neutral goal. And that all depends on whether new trees are planted at all — which isn’t required by any governing body to date.

Most importantly: achieving carbon neutrality five or ten decades out won’t help with today’s rapidly escalating climate emergency; it definitely won’t prevent rapidly rising emissions in the next 12 years, as burned wood pellets help melt polar ice, push up sea levels, and generate increasingly destructive extreme weather events just as burning fossil fuels does.

The biomass loophole “fundamentally undermines our ability to genuinely reduce emissions and increase the carbon sink [created by maintaining and restoring forests]; it’s a double whammy,” said scientist Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity in the U.S., and a leading biomass accounting expert. “If you had to come up with one idea to really undermine the progress in climate mitigation, you really can’t do better than cutting down forests and burning them.”

Consider Denmark, suggests the Copenhagen environmental advocacy group Forests of the World: the EU country annually emits 45 million tons of carbon which is counted and reported to the UN. However, another 17 million tons of carbon emissions from burning biomass occurs and is counted, but not reported. Thus, Denmark emits nearly 30 percent more carbon than it is required to report. But nature knows.

“For every one ton of carbon countries claim to be reducing,” said Tim Searchinger, a biomass expert and research scholar at Princeton University, “they are actually increasing emissions by one or perhaps two tons by claiming carbon neutrality when burning biomass. Very few people understand this. And it’s a gigantic problem.”

Images like this one, young hands holding wood pellets, are vigorously promoted by a wood products industry that wants the public to perceive it as green. But recent studies have shown that biomass carbon neutrality claims are false. Scientists and activists have become increasingly alarmed by governments, energy producers, and forest products companies that continue to tout outdated Kyoto Protocol carbon neutral claims. Meanwhile, the UN has done nothing to alter its position, leaving activists with the long shot of litigation as one of their only tenable actions. Photo credit: #ODF on Visual hunt / CC BY.

Reasons to believe

At the moment, there appears to be no solution in sight. Environmentalists filed suit in Brussels against the EU in March to close the carbon neutrality loophole. Legal experts say it’s a long shot that the plaintiffs will even get standing in the International Court to pursue the case.

“Here’s the thing,” said Gry Bossen with Forests of the World during the December UN climate summit in Poland. “Policymakers really do believe burning trees is carbon neutral. It doesn’t enter their mind that it is not.”

The answers to why — when the loophole appears to many as so obvious, and the threat to the planet as so tangible — is one of political habit, expedience and business as usual:

The scales are tipped even further against closing the loophole, according to Kelsey Perlman with Fern. In order to reach net-zero carbon neutrality by 2050, the European Commission offered two contradictory pathways when dealing with land use: improve forest management and tree planting and use more woody biomass, or trees, for energy generation. The only possible way to seemingly meet both goals is with plantation forest plantings for biomass use, which doesn’t solve the 50-100 year carbon-neutrality problem.

“There is a narrowing of options based on the fact that we already have a Renewable Energy Directive that allows for the burning of wood pellets which will be counted as carbon neutral under EU policy,” Perlman said. “It’s a massive misrepresentation of what really needs to be done.”

A truckload of harvested trees bound for a wood pellet mill in rural North Carolina. Nearly all of the million-plus tons of pellets produced in the United States Southeast are shipped to the United Kingdom and European Union countries such as Denmark and Belgium. Photo by Justin Catanoso.

A largely unknown calamity

Clearly, UK and EU emissions-reduction strategies are not limited to energy generation. Countries are investing in wind and solar. They are requiring energy efficiency in buildings and transportation. They are promoting smart, sustainable agriculture. Overall emissions will fall if those strategies are successful — but not nearly fast enough.

Plus, emission reductions will not be as robust as they must be, because vast amounts of carbon will be rushing out of smokestacks, through the accounting loophole, and into the atmosphere. But as Princeton University’s Searchinger pointed out, most people are utterly unaware of this escalating environmental calamity. And because those biomass emissions will be invisible to the UN accounting system, people will feel falsely comforted as national carbon neutrality numbers deceptively fall toward zero in the decades ahead.

In a June conference call to discuss climate threats in the Caribbean, Simon Stiell, Grenada’s minister of climate resilience, told journalists: “I am impressed by the UK target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. We hope other developed countries will follow their lead.”

When Mongabay briefly explained the carbon counting loophole, Stiell responded: “I am unaware of the biomass question.”

Then he quickly emphasized what’s at stake regarding accurate emissions accounting: “As a small, developing island state, I can say that whatever targets are set must be meaningful. It’s not about finding loopholes to exploit. The science behind climate change is irrefutable in terms of causes and mitigation. It’s not something we can cheat or should cheat,” Stiell said.

“If we find those results on paper, but in Grenada, the sea levels continue to rise, the winds continue to blow harder, and our people continue to suffer, that is unacceptable,” he concluded. “There needs to be full transparency in terms of what actions are credible and make a difference, and what doesn’t.”

Justin Catanoso is a regular contributor to Mongabay and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, USA. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso

Banner image: Pellet makers say they use only lumber mill waste, treetops and limbs, and crooked trees to produce wood pellets. Industry critics argue that companies are increasingly clear-cutting forests to meet growing demand. Losing standing forests means losing natural carbon sinks, biodiversity and protection from storms and floods. Photo credit: USDAgov on Visual Hunt / CC BY.

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