A Smokescreen for Forest Destruction

This blog was written in partnership with Adam Macon, Our Forests Aren't Fuel Campaign Director at the Dogwood Alliance.

Standing forests are a critical tool in the fight against climate change. Cutting trees down to use as fuel in energy production--known as biomass energy or bioenergy--is one of the worst things we can do if our goal is clean air and a livable climate. Despite this reality, policymakers around the world have invested heavily in bioenergy. Nowhere is this truer than in the European Union, where bioenergy policies in the United Kingdom and other member states enable billions in subsidies to flow to the balance sheets of large power companies to help finance the conversion of old coal-fired power plants to burn wood.

Meanwhile, the evidence of the climate and ecological harm wrought by the biomass industry continues to mount. NRDC and the Dogwood Alliance have just added the latest exhibit in the case against bioenergy, with a new report exposing deep flaws and deficiencies in the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP). The SBP was created in 2013 by biomass companies to provide assurances that their wood pellets and other biomass fuel are sustainable and legally sourced. Unfortunately, from the start, this certification scheme has been dominated by industry and built using a self-policing approach that has resulted in increased carbon emissions, accelerated loss of natural forests, and negative impacts on local communities.

This report adds to the long list of studies and other evidence outlining the clear harmful impacts of bioenergy. Proponents can no longer credibly argue that the industry’s impacts on the climate, forests, and people remain uncertain, and that we need more “proof”.

For five years running, leading NGOs, climate scientists, health professionals, media outlets, and even official government reports have offered this proof time and again. Scientists have demonstrated that burning whole trees and other large-diameter wood increases carbon pollution compared to coal for many decades. Public health experts explain that burning biomass emits myriad harmful air pollutants, with serious consequences for air quality and public health. Economists outline how biomass conversions are a bad investment compared to truly clean energy sources, such as solar and wind. Frontline communities tell us that they don’t want biomass producers in their backyards. And respected reporters and local and national NGOs have documented the unsustainable logging practices used to source the biomass industry, putting some of the most biodiverse and valuable forests in the world in peril.

Unlike the biomass industry, these communities, advocates, reporters and researchers have no political or financial stake in bioenergy subsidies. 

It’s time to turn the tables and place the burden of proof where it belongs: at the feet of the biomass industry and the policymakers who are its benefactors. These policymakers are elected to advance the public’s interest. They pay out biomass subsidies under the guise of advancing national goals of increasing renewable energy production and taking meaningful action on climate change. In exchange for the public’s generous support, biomass-burning power companies are assumed to deliver a public good: cleaner air and lower carbon emissions. Both groups should be held accountable for demonstrating that the public is getting what it’s paying for. 

This overarching principle is at the heart of our new report. Amongst the key findings is that the SBP uses flawed and incomplete carbon accounting, lacks adequate independent audits and verification, leaving biomass producers to conduct their own risk assessments and choose their own verifiers and data sources, and fails to provide performance-based thresholds and protections. Put plainly, the SBP allows the biomass industry to hide their carbon emissions and destructive forestry practices to fuel an environmentally damaging energy industry. In doing so, it actually undercuts vital efforts to address climate change and protect forests and communities.

The impacts of industrial-scale bioenergy are now well known and well documented. Hiding behind a smokescreen of an industry certification scheme such as the SBP doesn’t change the facts on the ground--or in the atmosphere! The message cannot be clearer: if policymakers are looking to the SBP to provide assurances on the sustainability and carbon intensity of biomass fuels, they cannot be confident in using it. 

The world has been generating electricity the same way since the 1880’s. Burning biomass is a step backwards, not forwards towards the 21st century clean energy system we deserve and our climate desperately needs. To truly act on climate change, European policymakers must end subsidies for dirty and destructive industrial-scale biomass and invest in truly clean and low-carbon energy sources like solar and wind and the protection and expansion of our standing forests. 

Key findings of the comprehensive analysis of the SBP include:

  • The SBP does not require calculation of emissions at the smokestack when biomass is burned, essentially classifying biomass ‘carbon neutral’, on a par with truly clean energy technologies such as wind and solar. As noted, recent scientific studies have concluded that burning biomass for electricity—in particular whole trees and other large-diameter wood—increases carbon emissions when compared to coal and other fossil fuel for decades.
  • The SBP ignores several crucial aspects for forest carbon accounting allowing assessments to be conducted with a fundamental lack of objectivity, consistency and connection to the management of actual source forests and rarely require on-the-ground verification.
  • The SBP Feedstock Standard lacks concrete, performance-orientated thresholds and protections, and thus provides little assurance regarding environmental or social protection in source forests.

Both the full report and summary fact sheet can be found here.

About the Authors

Sasha Stashwick

Senior Advocate, Energy & Transportation and Food & Agriculture programs

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