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UN and policymakers, wake up! Burning trees for energy is not carbon neutral (commentary)

  • On September 23, the signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement will gather at the United Nations for a Climate Action Summit to step up their carbon reduction pledges in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, while also kicking off Climate Week events in New York City.
  • However, the policymakers, financiers, and big green groups organizing these events will almost certainly turn a blind eye toward renewable energy policies that subsidize forest wood burned for energy as if it is a zero emissions technology like wind or solar.
  • Scientists have repeatedly warned that burning forests is not in fact carbon neutral, and that doing so puts the world at risk of overshooting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target.
  • But that message has fallen on deaf ears, as lucrative renewable energy subsidies have driven exponential growth in use of forest wood as fuel. The world’s nations must stop subsidizing burning forest biomass now to protect forests, the climate, and our future. This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author.
The handfuls of wood pellets and the green sleeves seen here are part of a biomass industry-supported PR campaign claiming that burning wood to produce energy is carbon neutral. But it isn’t. Photo credit: #ODF on Visual hunt / CC BY.

We’ve all watched in helpless horror as the Amazon and other forests have burned in recent weeks. But there’s another, deliberate forest conflagration happening, ironically a result of climate policy — burning forest wood at power plants to generate “renewable” biomass energy.

While burning wood is widely treated as “carbon neutral,” the physical reality is that burning wood emits more carbon pollution than coal per unit energy. You don’t need modeling to understand that while trees may be technically renewable, cutting and burning a forest emits carbon quickly, but re-growing forests sequesters carbon slowly. Even burning forestry “residues” — the leftovers from logging jobs — causes carbon emissions to spike.

The science shows that to avoid catastrophic climate change we must protect and restore forests, not cut and burn them for energy, and that climate mitigation can’t wait the decades to centuries required to regrow forests cut for fuel. Yet in a display of stunning defiance of such a basic principle, policymakers worldwide continue to shovel billions of dollars in renewable energy subsidies into so-called “zero carbon” tree-burning power plants, which devour forests, decrease the forest carbon sink, and pollute the air.

A special culprit is the European Union, which sets renewable energy policy rules for member states. Despite abundant evidence that the biomass and wood pellet industry is trashing forests and increasing carbon emissions, the EU re-upped their renewable energy policy last year to continue subsidizing forest biomass for heat and power.  It didn’t seem to matter that the EU received a crush of input from scientists and advocates, including their own science advisors, who warned:

The legal mandate to record forest biomass-fired energy as contributing to the EU’s renewable energy targets has had the perverse effect of creating a demand for trees to be felled in Europe or elsewhere in order to burn them for energy, thus releasing the carbon into the atmosphere which would otherwise stay locked up in the forest, and simultaneously drastically reducing the carbon sink strength of the forest ecosystems… The potentially very long payback periods for forest biomass raise important issues given the UNFCCC’s [the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s] aspiration of limiting warming to 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels to ‘significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change’. On current trends, this may be exceeded in around a decade. Relying on forest biomass for the EU’s renewable energy, with its associated initial increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, increases the risk of overshooting the 1.5°C target if payback periods are longer than this.

Adding to the pressure on forests, many countries, including the US and EU member states, also subsidize wood heating, which constitutes more than half the wood burned in the EU. Increasingly, thousands of firewood and wood pellet companies in the EU are hollowing out forests, including old growth beech forests in the Carpathian Mountains, home of Europe’s last tracts of wilderness. This subsidized wood burning is murdering forest ecosystems that will never recover in the lifetime of anyone alive today — all in the name of climate change mitigation.

The special hypocrisy around biomass will be on display at the United Nations Climate Action Summit and during New York’s Climate Week (Sept 23 – 29), where countries and companies are set to announce their deepened commitments to climate mitigation.

There it’s likely we’ll see countries trumpet emission reduction goals with nary a word about how much of this ambition relies on burning forest wood and simply not counting the emissions. These nations may meet their carbon pledges on paper — but nature will know they cheated.

The UK, for example, has set a goal of net zero emissions by 2050, but currently pays over a billion dollars a year in renewable energy subsidies to the Drax power station, which burns millions of tons of wood pellets from trees stripped from forests of the US, Canada, Spain, Portugal, and Poland, as well as northern EU countries with fragile boreal bog forests — Estonia, Latvia, Sweden.

The Drax power stations in the United Kingdom, one of the largest users of woody biomass for energy production. Shown here is the Drax biomass dome, which once burned coal. The UK has nearly eliminated burning coal for energy, cutting its official IPCC emissions, but is ramping up its burning of woody biomass. The uncounted carbon from Drax flows into the atmosphere, adding to climate change. Photo credit: DECCgovuk on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND.

Few at Climate Week are going to want to acknowledge this inconvenient truth. Policymakers, corporations, financiers, and the big greens organizing the New York jamboree don’t want to pull this particular thread because to do so starts to unravel the whole sweater, revealing the massive assumptions involved in treating forest wood as carbon neutral.

The money at stake surely plays a role — the billions in subsidies underpinning the last ten years of exponential growth in the wood pellet industry are reflected in the heady share prices of companies like US-based Enviva, which exports millions of tons of wood pellets to the UK, EU, and even Asia. Industry partnerships with the big greens designed to burnish “sustainability” credentials of wood pellets don’t exactly enhance transparency about impacts, either. The camel’s nose of the biomass industry is under every tent.

Pine forests cut to provide wood pellets for power plants are replanted, so this energy resource could technically be called carbon neutral, but only over the long term. It takes many years for those new trees to become mature and for the carbon equation to balance out. Photo credit: ChattOconeeNF on / CC BY.

What to do in the face of such blatant and deliberate damage? Working with allies, my organization, the Partnership for Policy Integrity, has filed reports with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) highlighting the systemic misrepresentations of the wood pellet industry and asking the SEC to require better disclosures of the actual emission impacts of burning biomass.

When advocacy and science failed to add real forest protections to the EU’s renewable energy policy, we worked with colleagues to file a lawsuit against the EU for its misrepresentation of burning trees as climate friendly (the court has not yet determined whether it will hear the case).

We’re putting this issue on the agenda at Climate Week too, with a documentary that rips the green veneer off the biomass and wood pellet industries, followed by discussion about the EU biomass lawsuit and bioenergy policy around the world. Policymakers are especially welcome to attend.

Burning forest biomass is a triple hit to climate mitigation — it increases emissions, decreases the forest carbon sink, and soaks up subsidies that could instead be allocated to zero emissions technologies or efficiency.

However, there’s a simple — though not politically easy — fix to this problem. The modern biomass and wood pellet industry is a house of cards, dependent on subsidies. Countries must stop subsidizing burning wood, and preferably, start subsidizing natural forest restoration. Cutting and burning forests for “zero-carbon” fuel should be considered a Climate Crime, not subsidized with tens of billions of dollars. We should have a renewable energy policy that doesn’t destroy forests — we owe it to the world.

Mary Booth is an ecosystem scientist and the Director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a US-based nonprofit organization.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets worldwide to strengthen coverage of the climate story.  

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