A four-year-old biomass certification program has led to increased carbon dioxide emissions, accelerated the loss of natural forests, and created negative impacts on local communities – the very results it was designed to avoid, according to a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Dogwood Alliance. The report outlines how the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP), an industry-dominated certification scheme meant to assure policymakers that biomass energy is environmentally sustainable, actually undercuts efforts to address climate change and protect forests.
A growing trend in the European Union to convert coal plants to burn biomass has spurred billions of dollars in subsidies within member states. This demand is boosting an exploding wood pellet export industry in the Southeastern United States, where trees are cut down, manufactured into pellets, loaded on ships, and sent abroad to burn for electricity.
“The biomass industry is using a highly deficient self-policing program to justify its environmentally destructive practices,” said Sasha Stashwick, senior advocate at NRDC. “The Sustainable Biomass Program lets the fox guard the henhouse. Biomass producers want policymakers to think that burning trees to fuel power plants is green, but in fact it’s one of the worst things we can do in the fight against climate change. If policymakers here and abroad are looking for clean energy sources of the future, they should look to wind and solar, and leave our vital forests alone.”
The rapidly expanding biomass industry poses a serious risk to biodiversity in the forests of the U.S. Southeast, where the coastal plain has been recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot. The southeast region is home to some of the most biologically rich wetland forests in the country, known as bottomland hardwood forests. On-the-ground investigations have shown repeatedly that the most unsustainable practices, such as clearcutting of wetland forests, are being used to source the biomass industry.
“The forests of the U.S. Southeast are vital to protecting rural communities across the region from the worst impacts of climate change such as storm surge and flooding, and their destruction should not be rubberstamped as green by the Sustainable Biomass Program,” said Adam Macon, campaign director at Dogwood Alliance. “Our local communities do not need more industrial forestry destruction; they need positive investment in standing forests that provide clean drinking water, community safety, and bolster and improve their health and quality of life.”
With growing concerns from leading scientists about the impact of biomass logging on forest ecosystems and carbon emissions, the biomass industry created the SBP in 2013. The program was designed as an international certification scheme to provide assurances on sourcing, carbon levels, and forest protection. However, this report details serious concerns regarding the SBP’s independence and ability to credibly evaluate the industry’s impacts on the climate, forest ecosystems, and local communities.
The certification scheme is dominated by those within the biomass industry who have a vested interest in making their logging practices appear environmentally sustainable and their fuel “carbon neutral.” Unlike other certification programs, the SBP scheme lacks adequate independent audits and verification, leaving biomass producers to conduct their own risk assessments and choose their own verifiers and data sources, despite the obvious conflict of interest.
Other key findings include:
- The SBP does not require calculation of emissions at the smokestack when biomass is burned, essentially classifying biomass “carbon neutral,” on par with truly clean energy technologies such as wind and solar. However, 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 also 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.
- The SBP Feedstock Standard lacks concrete, performance-orientated thresholds and protections, and thus provides little assurance regarding environmental or social protection in source forests.
The Executive Summary as well as the full report can be viewed on the NRDC website at: https://www.nrdc.org/resources/sustainable-biomass-program-smokescreen-forest-destruction-and-corporate-non.
For a blog post by Sasha Stashwick and Adam Macon, visit: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/sasha-stashwick/smokescreen-forest-destruction
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international non-profit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.
Founded in 1996 and based in Asheville, NC, Dogwood Alliance mobilizes diverse voices to protect Southern forests and communities from destructive industrial logging. The group’s Our Forests Aren’t Fuel campaign is part of an international coalition opposing industrial-scale forest biomass energy.