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The EU banned Russian wood pellet imports; South Korea took them all

  • In July 2022, the European Union responded to the war in Ukraine by banning the import of Russian woody biomass used to make energy. At roughly the same time, South Korea drastically upped its Russian woody biomass imports, becoming the sole official importer of Russian wood pellets for industrial energy use.
  • The EU has reportedly replaced its Russian supplies of woody biomass by importing wood pellets from the U.S. and Eastern Europe. But others say that trade data and paper trails indicate a violation of the EU ban, with laundered Russian wood pellets possibly flowing through Turkey, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to multiple EU nations.
  • EU pellet imports from Turkey grew from 2,200 tons monthly last spring to 16,000 tons in September. Imports from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan reportedly rose too, even though neither has a forest industry. A large body of scientific evidence shows that woody biomass adds significantly to climate change and biodiversity loss.
  • Enviva, the world’s largest woody biomass producer, which operates chiefly in the Southeast U.S., may be the big winner in the Russian biomass ban. Since the war began, Enviva has upped EU shipments, and also announced a 10-year contract with an unnamed European customer to deliver 800,000 metric tons of pellets annually by 2027.

Despite European countries becoming ever more reliant on woody biomass for energy generation, the European Union last July chose to ban the import of wood pellets from Russia during a fifth round of economic sanctions tied to the unprovoked war with Ukraine.

As a result, South Korea — which is in the process of accelerating its energy transition from coal burning to wood pellets — found itself in a geopolitical quandary that also offered a domestic energy-making opportunity.  Not wanting to alienate either Russia or Western allies aligned with Ukraine, South Korea has reportedly opted to ignore the ongoing war and take advantage of the entire surplus of Russian wood pellets on the open market.

Since late July 2022, South Korea has been the exclusive destination for Russian produced pellets, tripling its imports in November alone to 65,000 tons, according to a report in late December by LesProm, a European timber holding and wood-products conglomerate. Through November of last year, South Korea paid $69 million to Russia for 377,000 tons of wood pellets — double what it imported from Russia in 2021.

Forest advocates in Asia, Europe and the United States are livid at South Korea’s actions, noting that Russian imports now make up 15% of South Korea’s total wood pellet supply. They also say that South Korea is paying little attention to third-party certification programs that would help ensure that wood pellet supplies are not contributing to net deforestation and biodiversity loss in Russia.

“South Korea, taking advantage of market conditions to buy Russian pellets during an ongoing war, underlines the concern that civil society has continuously raised about Korea’s weak timber regulations,” Hansae Song, a research associate with the Korea-based NGO Solutions for Our Climate, told Mongabay.

The Samcheonpo power plant in South Korea co-fires with coal and woody biomass, allowing it to claim it is reducing emissions under a carbon accounting loophole. Image courtesy of Solutions for Our Climate.

“The Korean government does nothing more than check documents at the port of entry — no due diligence is required,” Song added. “We are deeply ashamed that our government is allowing the purchase of products associated with both a humanitarian and climate crisis. Ultimately, favoring biomass over solar and wind — even subsidizing biomass companies and their pellets — is only to deepen human rights and environmental issues.”

The United Kingdom, EU, Japan and South Korea continue to shift their energy generation from coal to wood pellets based on scientifically disputed policies that define wood as a renewable energy source on par with zero-carbon wind and solar. Thus, woody biomass receives billions in government subsidies annually.

A host of studies have confirmed that, despite climate-friendly claims of sustainability by the forestry industry and by national governments, wood pellets are less energy-dense than coal, and thus produce more greenhouse gas emissions to generate the same amount of energy. Also, as the clearcutting of forests for pellets escalates around the globe, there is a considerable reduction in the effectiveness of forests as carbon sinks.

Rita Frost, an international forest advocate with the North Carolina NGO Dogwood Alliance, told Mongabay: “South Korea’s growing wood pellet demand is already destroying forests and harming communities here in the Southern U.S. It seems [now] to have gotten even more controversial: While the rest of the world is boycotting Russian wood pellets, South Korea is increasing its imports — all in the name of a false solution to climate change.”

Jeon Bok Kim, South Korea’s deputy director of the Asian nation’s Timber Industry Division which oversees bioenergy, did not respond to a Mongabay request for comment. Hansae Song notes that there has been no Korean media coverage of the wood pellet import issue to date.

Wood pellets burned to make energy on a vast industrial scale have become a global conundrum with their sourcing, production, transportation and use made controversial by complex interacting environmental, political and economic factors. Image found on Fickr.

Are Russian pellets getting through?

Online reports in late December documented how the EU appears to be offsetting its loss of Russian wood pellets due to sanctions by increasing pellet imports from the U.S. and Eastern Europe.

But other reports posit that illicit Russian wood pellets may still be getting into the EU after possibly being laundered in countries such as Turkey, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Mondel, a European energy industry group, reported that the EU-wide ban on Russian pellets coincided with a seven-fold increase in EU imports from Turkey, which grew from 2,200 tons monthly last spring to 16,000 tons in September. Russian monthly imports to the EU officially dropped from 153,000 tons before the July ban to zero by September.

Investigative journalists with Blitz, an independent news organization covering Europe, reported in late December that they uncovered paper trails indicating that tons of wood pellets from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan flowed into EU countries such as Germany, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. These two Asian countries, south of Russia and formerly part of the USSR, have virtually no forest industry.

For Russia, the revenue from selling wood pellets is significant: 3.1 billion euros (US $3.3 billion) earned from the EU in 2021, with 1.4 billion euros (US $1.5 billion) earned in 2022 before the ban.

News reports suggest that Russia — as it seeks more money to fund its stalled war effort against Ukraine — is still generating major revenue from wood pellet exports, either directly from South Korea, or possibly indirectly through Asian countries bordering the EU.

Enviva, the world’s largest producer of forest biomass for energy, claims it uses woody waste material to make wood pellets and not whole trees, but images from inside its Southampton plant in Virginia. U.S., tell a different story. Whole tree logs in the thousands have been documented here and at other Enviva pellet plants. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

Supply questions and answers

Fenna Swart, a forest advocate with the NGO Clean Air Committee in The Netherlands, told Mongabay her group was able to monitor bulk carriers of wood-pellet imports at ports in Riga, Latvia, and in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. However, she notes that monitoring has become more difficult since the war began nearly a year ago, leading her group to question where exactly European wood pellets are coming from.

One source is clearly known: U.S.-based Enviva, the world’s largest producer of industrial-scale wood pellets, has announced that it has been helping to offset Russian imports to meet increasing EU demand, with most of those pellets sourced from native forests in the southeastern United States.

In October, U.S. wood pellets to the EU increased by 90% over the previous year, most of that coming from Enviva. Company CEO Thomas Meth recently announced a 10-year contract with an unnamed European customer to start delivering 800,000 metric tons of wood pellets annually by 2027 — with the firm betting on a long-term future for bioenergy despite growing public opposition and the potential of new EU policies to limit wood pellet harvests, burning and subsidies.

“Deliveries under this new contract are expected to begin in about four years,” Meth said in a statement, “which underscores how serious our European counterparties are in shoring up renewable energy feedstock from secure, sustainable, and trusted sources.”

Forest advocate Peg Putt with the NGO Environmental Paper Network in Australia, where wood pellets are no longer legally defined as a renewable energy source, has a far different view.

“The [forest biomass] industry has shown no inclination nor aptitude to address issues which are growing as global demand escalates and more countries adopt this false climate solution,” Putt told Mongabay. “These issues — in addition to huge, immediate carbon emissions and logging destruction of biodiversity — are more reasons to stay away from burning forest wood and go for genuine low-emissions renewables like solar and wind.”

Justin Catanoso, a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in the United States, is a regular contributor.

Banner image: Wood chips slated for biomass burning at Tofte, Norway. Image by Statkraft via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion with reporter Justin Catanoso about biomass as a false solution to the global climate crisis, listen here:

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