As climate change rapidly escalates with worsening impacts, and with standing forests vital to achieving global warming solutions, the forest biomass industry is booming. While the industry does utilize wood scraps, it also frequently cuts standing forests to supply wood pellets to be burned in converted coal power plants.Though current science has shown that burning the world’s forests to make electricity is disastrous for biodiversity, generates more emissions than coal, and isn’t carbon neutral, a UN policy established in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol erroneously counts energy produced from forest biomass as carbon neutral.As a result, nations pay power companies huge subsidies to burn wood pellets, propelling industry growth. While the industry does utilize tree residue, forests are being cut in the US, Canada, Russia, Eastern Europe and Vietnam to supply pellets to the UK, EU and other nations who can claim the energy creates zero emissions.So far, the UN has turned a blind eye to closing the climate destabilizing carbon accounting loophole. The Netherlands, which now gets 61% of its renewable energy from biomass, is being urged to wean itself off biomass for energy and heat. If the Dutch do so, advocates hope it could portend closure of Europe’s carbon loophole. The forest biomass industry is sprawling and spreading globally — rapidly growing in size, scale, revenue, and political influence — even as forest ecologists and climatologists warn that the industry is putting the planet’s temperate and tropical forests at risk, and aggressively lobbying governments against using wood pellets as a “renewable energy” alternative to burning coal. (Click here for an interactive map of the hundreds of major bioenergy burning power plants now operating worldwide.) “We have repeatedly pointed out that… the large-scale substitution of coal by forest biomass [to produce electricity] will accelerate climate warming, and will increase the risks of overshooting Paris [Climate Agreement] targets,” Michael Norton, environmental director of the Science Advisory Council of the European Academies, said in a December 2019 statement issued to European Union countries. “The reason is simple: when the forest is harvested and used for bioenergy, all the carbon in the biomass enters the atmosphere very quickly, but it will not be reabsorbed by new trees for decades. This is not compatible with the need to tackle the climate crisis urgently,” said Norton. As the forest biomass industry expands rapidly in the U.S., Canada, Russia, Vietnam and Eastern Europe, so too does the threat to untold acres of natural forests and their biodiverse ecosystems needed for carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation in those same nations and regions, even as global warming is poised to set punishing new records in 2020. “Our two biggest global environmental challenges — climate change and biodiversity loss — are inextricably linked, so keeping forests standing must be a priority of all governments,” said Natural Resource Defense Council Senior Advocate Sasha Stashwick, in an interview with BioEnergy Insight. “Much of the wood burned in UK power plants is cut down and shipped from ecologically sensitive forests in the U.S. Southeast. Those forests are efficient and powerful carbon-capture systems and support unique wildlife found nowhere else in the world,” said Stashwick. But they can’t serve that important purpose if the trees are cut and turned into wood pellets, and don’t grow back for decades. In 2017 demand for industrial wood pellets exceeded 14 million tons. By 2027, demand is expected to more than double to over 36 million tons. The biggest increases in biomass burning by 2027 are expected in Europe, Japan and South Korea, with newly targeted source forests in Brazil, Mozambique and Australia. Image courtesy of Environmental Paper Network. Biomass industry in full boom With one possible exception in the Netherlands — where wood pellet burning is under examination as policy — today’s forest biomass industry is both refuting and shrugging off its environmental critics, and appears to be on a roll. That’s largely thanks to the so-called United Nations carbon accounting loophole that designates the burning of forests to generate electricity as carbon-neutral, despite recent hard science that shows otherwise. Consider these news items, most published in just the past few months, sampling the industry’s explosive growth: U.S. wood pellet exports have more than tripled, from 1.9 million metric tons in 2012 to about 6.9 million metric tons in 2019; the first five months of 2020 outpaced the first five months of last year, according to Forisk Consulting, which analyzes the industry. Pellet maker Pinnacle Renewable Energy had a record second quarter (April-June 2020) for production and sales of forest biomass from British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. The company sold 620,000 metric tons of wood pellets for export during the three-month period, up 21% over the previous quarter, and up 30% when compared to the second quarter of 2019, according to public filings. Maryland-based Enviva, publicly traded and the world’s largest producer of industrial-use wood pellets, spent $175 million to purchase its ninth plant in the U.S. Southeast. Two more plants are under construction in Alabama and Mississippi and promise to be the largest pellet-producing facilities on earth. Eniva’s pellets are bound for burning at converted coal plants mostly in the UK, but increasingly Japan and South Korea. North Carolina, the largest pellet-producing state in the U.S. Southeast, just approved its fifth plant, this one in Robeson County, which already has a large Enviva plant; all pellets are exported. Despite opposition from the public and environmental groups, the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a permit to UK-based Active Renewable Energy Power, even as DEQ pledges to never use biomass to make energy for North Carolina. Operational and proposed biomass burning sites in U.S. and Canada. Click here for an interactive image of this map. Image courtesy of Energy Justice Network. Click here for large scale version of this map and detailed list of Southeast U.S. forest biomass plants exporting wood pellets to Europe. Image courtesy of Southern Environmental Law Center. UK-based Drax, the world’s largest user of wood pellets for energy production, has had a booming first half of 2020. It reported a win-win for investors with biomass energy generation up 16% over the first half of 2019. Also, production at its own pellet-making plants in the U.S. Southeast is up 15% over 2019, with costs down 9%. Drax continues to enjoy more than $1 billion annually in government subsidies because biomass is technically deemed a carbon-neutral energy source on par with wind and solar. Subsidies for biomass energy generation are so great in South Korea that — as in the UK and EU — the Asian nation is reducing investments that would otherwise go to truly renewable energy sources like wind and solar, according to a new study. Russia and the U.S. are supplying South Korea with pellets, but so too is Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, whose biodiverse rainforests are already under extreme pressure from agribusiness and mining. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, must import nearly all its energy since the Fukishima nuclear disaster in 2011. To meet that need, it is converting more than 20 coal-fired power plants to co-fire with wood pellets and coal until a complete transition to pellets can be made. Vietnam, relatively new to pellet production, will likely clear cut thousands of acres of rainforest to meet Japan’s surging biomass demand. Pellet makers in Canada and the U.S. are also gearing up to meet Japan’s soaring demand. According to financial forecasters, global revenue for solid biomass is projected to nearly double from $221.7 billion in 2019, to $425.8 billion by 2027. Much of those profits will come from harvesting and burning trees — along with the spewing of carbon into the atmosphere, while meeting Paris Agreement national carbon targets on paper. In the early spring of 2019, investigators tracked logging trucks coming from a mature hardwood forest and going to Enviva’s Northampton, North Carolina facility. The clearcut, seen here, was located in the Tar-Pamlico River Basin, alongside Sandy Creek, feeding into the Pamlico Sound of North Carolina. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance. A load logging truck pulls into the Enviva biomass wood pellet plant in Northampton, North Carolina. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance / NRDC. Biomass defense and carbon loophole Forest experts have argued for a decade that the biomass industry is the beneficiary of a flaw in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that classified forest biomass burning as a renewable energy source equivalent to zero-carbon wind and solar.[/caption] The reasoning then was that the carbon released by burning wood pellets would be offset by the replanting of new trees — partly true, but with a huge caveat. Studies have shown that carbon neutrality, if enough new trees are planted to replace those pelletized, takes 50-100 years — a timeframe far too long given the accelerating pace of climate change. The UN itself says we have just ten years to make drastic emissions cuts or face catastrophic global warming impacts. But today, with the UN’s full blessing, countries continue burning forest biomass without needing to count the actual carbon emissions produced against their Paris Agreement carbon reduction pledges, thus giving a false, on-paper-only accounting of reductions. Studies have shown that biomass actually pollutes more than coal because more biomass is needed using wood pellets to generate the same amount of energy as coal. The biomass industry argues that its critics have it all wrong. In public hearings, statements and scientific reports of their own, the industry stresses that it is a green climate-friendly alternative to burning coal. The companies argue, for example, that they do not clear cut forests, but rather “manage” harvests in such a way that carbon sequestration is undisturbed, even as forest advocates tracking those same harvesting methods tell a far different story. “While our industry welcomes robust scrutiny and debate on the issues,” said Seth Ginther, executive director of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, in a statement, “it’s important for us to recognize and acknowledge that we have reached a tipping point where the overwhelming data, evidence and peer reviewed research points to the fact that sustainable biomass is part of the climate change solution.” With EU countries required by law to reduce their carbon emissions annually, Ginther’s pro-biomass advocacy position appears to hold sway — not the contrary view held by forest ecologists and environmentalists. Nearly 60% of renewable energy generated in the EU today comes not from wind or solar, but from burning biomass, mostly using wood pellets made out of whole trees and lumber waste.