The European Commission earlier this month released a startling new report acknowledging in detail the far-reaching environmental impacts of the exploding trans-Atlantic wood pellet trade. The report validates much of what NRDC and our partners in the environmental community on both sides of the Atlantic have been sounding the alarm on for the last three years.
Specifically, the report notes that whole trees that are chopped down and turned into wood pellets in the Southern United States are increasingly helping generate electricity in Europe by being shipped overseas to be burned in power plants. The handwriting has been on the wall for years. According to the report, the export of wood pellets from the U.S. to the EU has sky-rocketed – from .53 million tonnes in 2009 to 3.89 million tonnes in 2014, an increase driven primarily by EU climate and energy policies. The report also estimates that approximately 97 percent of U.S. pellet exports are sourced from the South.
This threatens some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in North America and the world. It could also undermine the EU’s ability to achieve its climate targets, the report suggests.
What makes the report especially powerful is its timing: It comes just a few months before the European Commission is expected to reform biomass policies for the EU 2030 Climate and Energy package, and it gives the Commission important information on how it needs to adjust its course on biomass moving forward. A massive carbon loophole in that package of policies erroneously treats all biomass as a “carbon neutral” source of energy, on par with other truly clean energy technologies like wind and solar, and has driven up demand for wood as fuel to burn in industrial-scale power plants. All of this has happened under the guise of “renewable energy” and tackling climate change.
While blunt in its assessment of the environmental consequences of EU biomass policies on forests and biodiversity in the Southern U.S., an analysis of the full climate impacts of burning woody biomass for energy is outside the scope of the report. The report does confirm, however, that wood pellet manufacturers and exporters currently use whole trees, not low-carbon wood waste. And as we know, the latest and best science now tells us that when all emissions are adequately accounted for, wood pellets made from whole trees will emit carbon pollution comparable to – or in excess of – fossil fuels for more than five decades. In the fight against climate change, we simply do not have that long to wait.
While pellet companies have continued to feverishly build new facilities – encouraged by large and heavily subsidized power companies in the EU – NRDC, our partners, local communities and independent scientists have been working hard to provide the on-the-ground evidence and the science underpinning our growing concerns.
Now, an independent report from the European Commission – authored by two well-respected organizations, COWI A/S and the Pinchot Institute – supports these concerns.
The study was commissioned by the EU Directorate General for Environment to provide the Commission with an understanding of the current use, trends, policy framework and environmental risk associated with the production of forest biomass in the southeastern U.S. for energy use in the EU.
Potential environmental impacts attributable to expanding demand for biomass were identified and rated based on likelihood and magnitude of impact. The authors then examined these impacts through the lens of other relevant EU policies and commitments on climate and biodiversity protection (e.g., United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol). Their objective was to identify where these impacts could present a risk of policy failure and compromise the EU’s global reputation for strong environmental policy.
The study identified four potential effects in the Southern U.S. from increased EU reliance on biomass for energy:
- Conversion of forests from natural forests to plantations. Bioenergy is expected to be the single-largest source of new wood demand. This is anticipated to contribute to expansion of pine plantations at the expense of agricultural land and natural forests of higher biodiversity value.
- Intensification of harvesting. Increased demand will result in increased harvesting activity, both in terms of intensity and area of removals (with a considerable amount of additional clearcuts projected annually where residues and thinnings do not meet this demand).
- Increased pressure on forests of high biodiversity value. Wood pellet mills in the southeastern U.S. are currently sourcing from areas identified as having high biodiversity value.
- Environmental consequences of displacing other existing forest product markets. Saturated pine pulpwood markets are driving new pellet mills to hardwood utilization in some places. This leakage could result in decreasing carbon stock in the southeastern U.S. Potential negative environmental effects associated with market leakage and displacement of competing industries could include making attainment of GHG reduction targets more difficult.
The authors conclude that these effects risk undermining several existing EU policy objectives and international commitments in other areas, in particular, biodiversity protection, deforestation, resource efficiency and climate commitments.
The EU should be commended for commissioning this important study. But to ensure the EU’s 2030 climate and energy package does not continue to drive the destruction of US forests in the name of renewable energy, we need to keep the pressure on policymakers.
It is imperative that policymakers implement policy reforms that 1) pair sustainability standards with sound carbon accounting and restrict public subsidies and other support mechanisms to sources of biomass fuel that demonstrably reduce carbon emissions within a timeframe relevant to tackling climate change; 2) ensure sustainability standards are rigorous, require on-the-ground monitoring, and are verified by an independent third party; and 3) place an overall cap on biomass for energy to reflect the limited supplies of truly sustainable low-carbon sources.
Getting this policy signal right is critical for the industry to move away from high-carbon, ecologically damaging sources of biomass. It will ensure that bioenergy projects do not increase carbon emissions and adversely impact forests, carbon sinks, soil, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and water resources. It will also lead to the public and private sectors scaling up their investments in energy efficiency and truly clean technologies like wind, solar, and geothermal.