Burning Biomass in Europe Causes Deforestation in the U.S., Scientists Warn

The U.S. wood pellet industry is the largest supplier for European wood-burning power plants, which scientists argue may undermine efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Jan 11, 2022 10:22 AM EST
Costas Vasilopoulos

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In an effort to reduce their green­house gas emis­sions in the con­text of the Paris Climate Agreement, sev­eral European coun­tries are increas­ingly rely­ing on energy from burn­ing wood, or bio­mass,’ as an alter­na­tive to fos­sil fuels, such as coal.

We have to be very clear in defin­ing what is accept­able bio­mass and what’s not.- Frans Timmermans, exec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent, European Commission

Dubbed both renew­able and car­bon-neu­tral, bio­mass can include any­thing from tree logs and for­est residues to woody energy crops and crop waste, which are usu­ally com­pressed into wood pel­lets.

However, envi­ron­men­tal advo­cates claim that the grow­ing demand for wood pel­lets in Europe poses a direct threat to forests and wet­lands of the rural south­east­ern United States, which are being clear-cut to fuel demand.

See Also: Amazon Records Highest Rate of Deforestation in 15 years

The U.S. southeast’s wood pel­let indus­try has pro­lif­er­ated in less than a decade: 23 mills cur­rently pro­duce more than 10 mil­lion met­ric tons of wood pel­lets each year, which are exported to Europe, mainly to the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Furthermore, sci­en­tists argue that wood-burn­ing can under­mine the global effort to avert ris­ing tem­per­a­tures by increas­ing emis­sions instead of reduc­ing them.

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According to stan­dard agreed prac­tice, CO2 emis­sions from bio­mass are not tal­lied as green­house gas emis­sions, based on the rea­son­ing that the car­bon emit­ted by wood-fired plants is off­set by other trees which are allowed to grow and absorb car­bon diox­ide.

However, coun­ter­bal­anc­ing the car­bon from wood burn­ing is not a straight­for­ward process since trees take a long time to grow.

There is a car­bon debt that occurs when you har­vest trees, and it still takes young trees a long time to recover the car­bon stock that was lost,” said Rich Birdsey, an expert on for­est car­bon bud­gets at the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

On the other hand, pro­po­nents of woody bio­fu­els, such as Richard Venditti, pro­fes­sor of pulp and paper sci­ence and engi­neer­ing at North Carolina State University, argue that bio­mass favors the cir­cu­lar econ­omy con­cept and is renew­able since well-main­tained forests can off­set the emis­sions from burn­ing wood.

See Also: World Leaders Pledge Billions to Restore Earth’s Forests

Biomass emis­sions were also left out from the European Union’s emis­sions trad­ing sys­tem (ETS) of 2005, a car­bon mar­ket designed to enable emis­sions trad­ing between mem­ber states and ulti­mately reduce green­house gas emis­sions.

Consequently, a coal-burn­ing power plant in Europe can switch to burn­ing wood pel­lets and the­o­ret­i­cally be eco-friendly with zero gas emis­sions.

The whole wood pel­let indus­try is basi­cally being dri­ven by this,” said Tim Searchinger, an expert on cli­mate change pol­icy at Princeton University. The mere fact that the U.S. reports more emis­sions doesn’t stop Europe from encour­ag­ing [the bio­mass indus­try], claim­ing to be reduc­ing emis­sions even while the real effect is to increase them.”

In the United States, 100 sci­en­tists urged President Joe Biden to remove the pro­vi­sions in two recent bills that pro­mote the use of bio­mass energy.

The log­ging and fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies and poli­cies in the Reconciliation and Infrastructure Bills will only inten­sify the rate and inten­sity of our chang­ing cli­mate,” the sci­en­tists wrote in a let­ter to the pres­i­dent in early November.

In Europe, where woody bio­mass cur­rently accounts for more than half of the E.U.’s renew­able energy sources, the chances of revis­ing its use for energy pro­duc­tion are look­ing slim.

To be per­fectly blunt with you, bio­mass will have to be a part of our energy port­fo­lio if we are to remove our depen­dency on fos­sil fuels,” Frans Timmermans, the commission’s exec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent, told the COP26 cli­mate sum­mit in Glasgow.

It depends on the qual­ity of your bio­mass,” he added. We have to be very clear in defin­ing what is accept­able bio­mass and what’s not. That’s where the crux of the mat­ter is.”





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