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When forests become bonfires

Monday, 17 May 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Greenhouse gas accounting is not a boring subject at all. I have Ursula von der Leyen and the EU Commission to thank for this startling discovery.

I started reading about this topic a few days ago, when the EU Commission crossed swords with a number of NGOs over rules (or sustainability criteria) that determine how our forests are harvested and managed. The NGOs were up in arms about wood biomass, or the burning of wood for energy. An activity that the EU considers as “CO2 neutral” under its renewable energy directive.

As Jorgen Henningsen, the former EU Commission Director responsible for Climate Change, wrote in a recent letter to the Financial Times, burning wood biomass is “no better than burning coal and… certainly emits more CO2 than natural gas.” This is why more than 500 scientists recently wrote a letter to President Biden, President von der Leyen and others to say in no uncertain terms that burning wood for energy is a terrible idea, and certainly not CO2 neutral.

Here’s where the greenhouse gas accounting part gets interesting: Simply put, the EU can send entire forests up in smoke and still consider the emissions at the smokestack as CO2 neutral. This is allowed because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) requires the suppliers of the wood to account for their emissions (the land-use forestry sector), not the people burning the biofuel (the energy sector).

Wood biomass is “CO2-neutral”, then, because the fuel grows back in the end, when all the trees grow back in 30, 40 or 50 years’ time, if they are replanted at all. Or, as the IPCC wonks would put it (the ones who have not broken ranks in protest), because the forestry “source” cancels out the forestry “sink.”

In other words, the EU can burn a North Carolina forest every day of the week without calling the local police or fire departments because the suppliers of the arsonable material are elsewhere, and they are the ones who need to account for their behavior. Summoned to court by the local district attorney or magistrate, the EU can then call herself “CO2-neutral” with a straight face because — to push the analogy further — she didn’t grow and harvest the dope, she just made an enormous bonfire out of it, and inhaled.

To make matters worse, and despite regulatory efforts to encourage honest accounting, the EU admits it is “difficult” for suppliers in the land-use sector to assess their emissions. Not that this will deter the EU from importing wood pellets from Russia, Canada, Brazil, the U.S. and other countries that are under no obligation to follow new accounting rules drafted in Brussels.

This is the policy math that decides the fate of our forests and that channels millions of Euros in subsides to a thoroughly dirty biofuel.

And what guarantees do Commission officials and industry lobbyists give us to ensure this carbon debt will be repaid, assuming we have decades to waste before we clean up our act? A few words from the Berlaymont book of talking points: “reforestation” and “sustainable sourced biomass”.

It beggars belief how policy makers and lobbyists in Brussels can throw around such words as an integral part of a wood bioenergy strategy without taking into account the things that could go wrong with the “fuel” and the conflicting goals of the people on the ground. In the best case scenario, the Swedish forester or land owner will immediately replant the carbon sink, but they will do so with an overarching goal in mind: not biodiversity or other ecosystem services but productivity. Forestry plantations are not always green deserts, but they are no substitute for natural forested ecosystems.

In the worst case scenario (more of which shortly), reality will frustrate the wonks’ Panglossian math and no one will bother to replant the sink.

Politico published a piece about wood biomass recently, and the lead picture they used shreds a number of claims made by the industry (no clear-felling, vigorous replanting, etc.) In any case, the real harm occurs when a forest is clear-felled because the economic incentives to do so outweigh the incentives to leave it in place.

And this ignores the fact that forests all over the world are increasingly under stress as a result of climate change, which is why we have more frequent fires and drought. Drought increases the likelihood of fungal pathogens and bark beetle infestations. These infestations are now so common and widespread that foresters all over the world are sounding the alarm.

These stresses notwithstanding and the impact they have on annual wood production capacity and lumber prices, quite a few policy makers in Europe are now flirting with the idea of permanently classifying wood-pellet biofuel not as a “transitional” and, at best, marginal energy source (which would be reasonable and only with “forestry waste”), but as a green energy source on par with wind and low-cost solar, which is not only misguided but totally absurd.

Janus-faced, and under pressure from Nordic countries, the EU vows to protect our forests and the wildlife they harbor — the forests that are our last line of defense against climate change — and then turns around and gives a thumbs up to an industry in the business of destroying them. You can’t have your trees and burn them too.

Then there is the issue of land. As the EU’s own scientists tactility recognize (and it’s worth reading the Reid et. als study they cite), the wood biomass industry will have serious problems scaling up wood-pellet production. There is not enough non-protected forested land to go around, so they will have to compete with the industries that we rely on for our wooden products, from IKEA chairs to parquet floors and paper. Industries that will keep suppling us with products when an extra two billion people join us on mothership Earth. (And we can only hope that our current croplands provide for them too, or we’ll need to find more.) 

So either we accept tradeoffs, less wood for your fancy designer chair and more wood for the toxic bonfire, which is not a very likely scenario. Or wood for everyone, a more likely scenario, which means the bulldozing of forests that were previously thought of as untouchable or “protected”.

As it happens, this is already occurring in many parts of the world. The pellet prospectors and their gold-rush suppliers are clear-cutting forests in Europe, the United States and elsewhere to feed these erstwhile coal plants and retrofitted furnaces (the Gardanne thermal power station in Bouches-du-Rhône, France, one of the 76 biomass plants in Europe, and not necessarily the most voracious, will burn 2,300 tons of wood per day.)

There is a wood biomass certification scheme in place that, in theory, prevents illegal logging and the clear-cutting of forests. But it has done nothing to stave off the destruction of forest ecosystems that have, for centuries, been used by local communities for hunting, recreation and sustainable wood harvesting.

In Romania, to give one example, more than 250,000 hectares of forest have been lost or severely degraded in recent years to feed the furnaces. Which is why some Romanians started travelling to Bulgaria for their summer holidays, to escape the depressing pellet-scapes created by the Austrian pellet prospectors. (My wife and I met a couple in Northern Bulgaria a few years back, and this was their story.)

Is this another example of “sustainably sourced biomass”? to quote Jens Wolf, Enviva’s Vice President and General Manager of Europe, the leading wood-pellet producer in the world. (US-based Enviva, by the way, a company permanently embroiled in disputes with neighbors and civil society organizations, has commissioned a green-painted portrait of herself that rivals the mastery of Rembrandt or Frans Hals.) 

Mr. Wolf and his colleagues might not be around when their maxed-out carbon credit card comes due. Greta Thunberg will be in her late sixties or early seventies when it’s time to collect the last installments, and I imagine she’ll be paid in ashes or horse hides sourced from the Anthropogenic wasteland that will be our planet.

Or not. The Greens and their allies in Parliament still have time to bring the EU to its senses when they begin to revise the Renewable Energy Directive later this summer. Whatever the EU Commission proposes in the end, the Greens have to remain vigilant and fight for the strongest possible sustainability criteria for wood biomass. Doing so would protect old-growth forests and other highly biodiverse places in Europe and around the world. A failure to do so would only strengthen the hand of an industry that will continue to make bonfires out of our forests in the name of sustainability.

Coda. And speaking of Frans Hals and the Dutch… You can always count on the Dutch to smell the onion in the ship’s hold, which is meant as compliment to the seafaring Dutch with their seaworthy plans to green their economy. So it is no wonder that the Dutch Parliament recently voted to deny the pellet prospectors subsides if they continue building “green” furnaces for their bonfires. Indeed, invest the people’s money in clean, low-cost renewables. Solar tiles in every square meter of roof, this is the Europe we imagine when Frans Timmermans speaks of the future. Not white smoke and ravaged forests.

One last thing: News of the wood-pellet gold rush reached Brazil a long time ago, and now, thanks to the EU and the UK with their generous subsides, Brazilian Bolsonaristas are looking to expand into new and more profitable horizons.

Want to learn more about this topic and sign a petition?

By Ramiro Austin