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Why do we grow trees in Siberia to burn them in Belgium?

Tuesday, 07 September 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Zuhal Demir, the Flemish Minister of Energy and the Environment, recently said something that was received with cheers and applause by all the furry, slithery and winged inhabitants of our world’s forests. Those who care about climate change, clean air and human health have reason to celebrate too.

To quote the Flemish minister: “Cutting down trees on a large scale and burning them under the guise of ‘renewable energy’ is too hypocritical for words.” The minister is right.

It doesn’t make sense to cut down forests in North Carolina and Siberia to make wood pellets for biomass facilities in Europe and the UK, so that Boris Johnson and others can pat themselves on the back every time someone calls this a “green” solution to our energy problem.

Burning coal for energy is a terrible idea. But that shouldn’t scare us from saying the truth: burning trees for energy is not much better. It is dirty, often destructive and unnecessary in industrialized societies. (It’s also bad for our health, even when we do it at home.)

Now we learn from Minster Demir that Belgium burns wood pellets sourced from Alberta, Chile and Siberia. This is not what bioenergy should be about. It makes sense to burn municipal waste and agricultural residues to recover energy. Small energy cooperatives in Germany work with local harvesters who thin their forests sustainably. Another idea that makes sense as a temporary solution.

But now, and thanks to a much emboldened forest bioenergy industry with cadres of lobbyists in Brussels, we’re retrofitting coal factories to incinerate pellets shipped across the Barents Sea and the Atlantic to the ports of Europe. Some of which, ironically, are hubs for wind power generation. One wonders what thought processes or rationalizations politicians go through to convince themselves that it’s a good idea to grow trees in the Siberia to burn them in Europe.

Bioenergy facilities should be in the business of scavenging, local scavenging. The feedstocks they need to produce steam, electricity or biogas should be near at hand. This would make sense as part of the EU’s zero waste strategy. We should think of these facilities as helpful vultures whose role is to clear away the excess local and regional waste that would otherwise pile up in our landfills. (Vultures are wonderful creatures and, yeah, I can hear the lobbyists laughing downtown.)

Bioenergy subsidies should be spent on our local scavenging infrastructure and waste-to-energy R&D. They should help us manage the Annapurnas of rubbish that we throw out every day of the week. Instead, we use these subsidies to convert native forests into wildlife-poor forestry plantations that sequester less carbon. We manufacture mountains of wood pellets and then, for good measure, we ship these pellets across oceans and seas using fleets of trucks and vessels and more trucks on arrival. (How many trucks, barges or train cars do you need to transport 64,527 tonnes of wood pellets, the current “world record” for a single load?)

Instead of looking overseas for their harvest, as in colonial times, the EU and the UK should help countries better manage their forests (and do a better job at home too). If preventive fires are necessary for that, the focus should be on reducing tree mortality. A global effort to save and protect our remaining native forests.

In his new book, climate scientist Michael E. Mann councils his readers not to “overstate” this issue (our reliance on forest bioenergy). He writes: “While we certainly shouldn’t be turning forests into wood chips for burning, it does make sense to burn some form of organic waste…” I think it’s fair to say that most people would agree with this statement.

The reality, sadly, is that wood harvesters do in fact clear-cut forests to convert them into wood pellets. Wood harvesters in the United States say so themselves: clear-cutting is their modus operandi. Clear-cutting destroys the communities of life that have evolved for millions of years and continue to evolve in our native forests.

In Chile, the National Forest Corporation (CONAF) asked wood harvesters to make voluntary commitments to put an end to this practice. But as the Forestry Stewardship Council notes in its risk assessment report (page 57), the CONAF’s oversight is “limited” and it’s difficult to verify whether or not the harvesters are following through on their commitments. On a positive note, there is no evidence that the clear-cutting of native forests takes place in order to manufacture the wood pellets in question, most of which are sold in the domestic market.

Chile, to be fair, is doing a better job with its forests than Europe’s third largest foreign supplier of forest biomass, Russia. (The United States and Canada are the EU’s other major foreign suppliers.) Europe expects big shipments from Russia, now and in the future. If Russia continues to score poorly or terribly on most of the FSC indicators that appear on its national risk assessment report, what will law-abiding Europe do? Will it continue to turn a blind eye to illegal logging, unfair competition, mistreatment of workers, gender discrimination in employment, destruction of rare habitats, fuel spills and the widespread degradation of forests?

Or will the Member States finally say: Enough is enough. Let us be bold and smart and redirect these subsidies to build up more solar and wind capacity across Europe, from Dobrudzha in Bulgaria to the southern coasts of Portugal.

Don’t count on it: many EU Member States and the UK are hell-bent on burning their way out of a fossil-fuel crisis and into a future that no one can predict. If we find ourselves arguing about runaway emissions in 10 or 15 years’ time, it will be useful to remember, as part of that policy post-mortem, what hundreds of scientists have told us repeatedly, namely: burning wood for energy is a “false solution” that creates a “double climate problem”. (Citation taken from the letter mentioned by the WWF.)

In my last piece for The Brussels Times I wrote about the total land area given over to lawns worldwide. Based on the incomplete information we have, I called this area the “Cambodia of grass”, an area which might, in fact, be larger than the Southeast Asian country, whose land area is approximately 181,035 km².

A tidy lawn beside a stream is not the same as a tidy lawn surrounded by asphalted roads. And, in any case, there is nothing “unnatural” about these lawns, as some scientists would argue. (Chris D. Thomas, for instance, author of the book Inheritors of the Earth. How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction.)

But how do we strike a balance between these lawns that keep advancing across the globe and the other human-modified habitats that make up our urban and suburban landscapes? It would be easier to do this if we knew more about these lawns — where they are, how fast they’re spreading, and how they impact the ecosystems they are part of. The research on the subject is not exactly encouraging.

Climatic differences, differences in altitude, soil composition and other factors would, in the end, change the appearance of this fictitious Cambodia of grass, and that’s good news. The bad news is what unites this global “lawnscape”: the tidy mowers’ creed and the multi-billion-euro industry that manufacture all kinds of petrol-powered and electric machinery that private and public gardens can do without.