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A little Xmas cheer for trees
Biomass burning has a bad week
In a season when many of us (for once comfortable as the pagans that at root we still must be) have brought trees into our homes and made them the centerpiece of our celebrations, there’s a little bit of cheerful news for our arboreal cousins. In a few places around the planet, regulators seem to be suddenly waking to the idea that burning trees to produce electricity is a bad idea.
When Christmas and Hanukah coincide, as this year, it seems like a doubly joyous season at our household. Sue and I thank you all for being part of this fight—and to those of you who can afford to pay the modest subscription fee without financial hardship, thanks for helping keep this conversation underway! The joy of the season to you all!
The story really begins a few weeks ago at the beginning of December, when the news siste Mongabay published a remarkable account of the business practices of the world’s largest supplier of wood pellets for power generation, the creepily named Enviva corporation. The company—which ships boatload after boatload of pellets from the southeast U.S. off to the U.K. and Europe where they are burned in former coal plants to generate electricity, has long insisted that it doesn’t use big, whole trees, but only uses wood waste, “tops, limbs, thinnings, and/or low-value smaller trees.” It insists it only sources wood from areas where trees will be regrown, and that it doesn’t contribute to deforestation.
As it turns out, Mongabay reporter Justin Catanoso found a management whistleblower who pointed him in the direction of clearcuts that the company was making: Catanoso watched as a feller-buncher machine grappled down a fifty-acre forest and fed the old oaks straight into a chipper, producing tons of wood to be turned into pellets. The whistleblower said that was par for the course: “We take giant, whole trees. We don’t care where they come from. The notion of sustainably managed forests is nonsense. We can’t get wood into the mills fast enough.”
He continued: “The company says that we use mostly waste like branches, treetops and debris to make pellets. What a joke. We use 100% whole trees in our pellets. We hardly use any waste. Pellet density is critical. You get that from whole trees, not junk.”
Enviva also claims that all the sites it uses are replanted in new forest—but the land he watched being clearcut, the reporter found, was destined for industrial development.
In truth, it doesn’t really take a whistleblower to get at the essential rottenness of the biomass argument. At first—up until a decade or so ago—that argument seemed to make basic sense: if you cut down a tree and burned it to produce electricity, another tree would eventually grow in its place, making the whole transaction ‘carbon neutral.’ (Though not, of course, if the land was used for industrial development, or anything other than forest). This is the argument that persuaded the European Union to classify biomass burning as “renewable,” making it eligible for all kinds of subsidies.
But about a decade ago scientists began to point out the flaws with this argument. For one thing, wood burns inefficiently, and so when you set it on fire to produce electricity you produce a lot of carbon. And more importantly, it takes a long time for a tree to regrow and suck that carbon back up—its decades before the damage is repaired, and it is precisely those decades that are going to break the back of the planet’s climate system. So while biomass energy might in some technical sense be “renewable,” it’s in actual practice disastrous—no better, on an imperiled planet, than burning the coal in the first place, especially since we’ve come to appreciate that big old trees—just the kind Enviva was taking down—continue to pull carbon out of the atmosphere as they grow. Indeed, for many species in many places, the rate at which they ‘sewquester’ that carbon increases with age: a tree in its seventh or eighth or tenth decade packs on ever more carbon. Leaving big forests standing, scientists now have shown, is one of the best ways we have of soaking up the carbon that we have poured into the air.
I don’t get angry at people for making this mistake about trees and carbon because it’s a mistake I made myself—fifteen years ago it seemed like a fine argument to me. But as the science shifted so did I, and by 2016 I was arguing against it. (If you want more background, here are a few of the pieces I’ve written in recent years). There are many many people making this argument now, and it is finally being heard.
Last week, Australia became the first big nation to reject the idea that biomass, at least from native forests, is a renewable source of energy. Its newly elected Labor Party revised the country’s regulations to reject the idea that biomass was renewable—and just in time, since apparently two coal-fired power stations in the country were about to convert over to burning wood.
That Australia managed to make this policy before its biomass industry got a foothold is key, of course—there’s not yet a powerful burn-trees lobby. But Europe is a different story: at the moment, biomass produces more energy than sun and wind across the EU. It’s a huge business, especially in the UK, where a plant run by the (even more creepily named) Drax corporation is the biggest single source of carbon in the whole country.
So in a sense it was even bigger news a few days later when the Dutch parliament voted to end subsidies for “untruthful” suppliers of biomass—i.e., for companies that instead of using wood waste cut down forests and use trees. Their move was clearly prompted by the Mongabay reporting about Enviva. As an Amsterdam legislator noted, “A whistleblower who worked at Enviva, the biggest maker of wood pellets, has reported that all of Enviva’s green claims are incorrect [and] according to an important recent scientific study… Enviva contributes to deforestation in the Southeastern US.” The new policy will sting—the Netherlands had set aside up to $10 billion in subsidies in the next decade for buying pellets.
The big wood pellet companies, and buyers, will now attempt to game the sustainable certification system to keep their products marked as green—but thanks to Catonoso (a journalism professor at Wake Forest) and to Mongabay and to a small cohort of wonderful NGOs exemplified by North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance, the heat is finally on this industry. It seems pretty clear that the idea you could supply massive quantities of pellets just using wood waste is a fiction; if you’re trying to make a fortune, cutting down whole trees is probably the only way to go. So now the world will have to make a choice with its eyes wide open.
And luckily, that choice is made much easier by the fact that in the decade since biomass burning got going bigtime, the cost of producing electricity in actually clean ways—wind and sun—has dropped by ninety percent. Biomass doesn’t make scientific sense, and it’s not economically necessary. Australia—so long a laggard in global energy policy—seems to have gotten the message: As Mongabay reported, its “reluctance to embrace woody biomass has led it to invest more heavily in zero-carbon renewable energy.” The EU spends $18 billion annually subsidizing biomass: imagine how much clean power that could build.
The bottom line is so obvious: Humans must stop setting things on fire. Not coal, not gas, not oil, and not industrial quantities of wood. We can end that 700,000-year-old habit of combustion in a matter of years if we really try—relying instead on the fact that the good Lord hung a large ball of burning gas 93 million miles up in the sky and endowed us with the wit to make full use of it.
In other news from the world of climate and energy:
+Here’s a surprise: A Florida company wants to build a liqueified natural gas terminal… and they’ve found a historically black community to do it in.
Neighbors in North Port St. Joe…worry a hulking industrial facility would contaminate the air and water in their backyard, at a time when they are still grappling with the toxic legacy of a previous industry. From 1938 to 1998, the St. Joe Paper Company made reams of bleached-white paper and cardboard boxes — all while dumping lead, arsenic and other toxins into the neighborhood next door. Residents also cited fears of an explosion, like the one that occurred in June of this year at the Freeport LNG-export facility in Texas.
+The American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting is the place the world goes to share new science about the climate crisis—and this year two scientists tried to urge their brethren to take to the streets. For their pains they had their badges revoked (and this from an organization that long took funding from the fossil fuel industry). "Please, please, please find a way to take action," Rose Abramoff called out, as she and Peter Kalmus were chased off stage.
+Antonia Juhasz (as reliable a reporter as there is) has the story of a former oil industry lawyer going up against Exxon to stop plans for a huge drilling complex off the shores of Guyana. Meanwhile, in the Intercept Sasha Chavkin offers up a scary account of how big corporations are using “scorched earth legal tactics” to intimidate environmental critics.
The technique was popularized by the elite corporate law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, whose clients include a who’s who of America’s most powerful companies. Representing the oil giant Chevron, Gibson Dunn convinced a judge to block one of the largest environmental verdicts ever reached by deploying a novel formula: using the civil provisions of RICO to charge opposing attorneys with racketeering.
+Justin Gillis and Tyler Norris, writing in the Times, explain how utilities are slow-walking the renewables transition by refusing to upgrade transmission lines to allow for new interconnections to solar and wind farms.
Huge backlogs of renewable energy projects have built up around the world as developers are refused permission to pump their power into the grid. The projects go on waiting lists that can now stretch for years, and many ultimately drop off when the delays become intolerable. In the United States, enough renewable energy projects are backlogged right now to achieve a largely clean electric grid by 2030. But without urgent action, most are unlikely to get built.
+This newsletter loves blimps, but it’s kind of fond of hydrofoils too
+There’s a huge campaign brewing for this winter against the American banks that are the biggest suppliers of capital to the fossil fuel industry. But the wonderful British group Make My Money Matter has an exemplary operation underway against the UK’s High Street banks. Sign on here!
+A real holiday gift from Juliet Grable and Sierra Magazine: a comprehensive history of all the movement building over the last 15 years that got us all the way to the Inflation Reduction Act. And here’s how it ends:
The climate movement has come a long way. Looked at it another way, though, and you can see how the historic passage of the Inflation Reduction Act is only the beginning. In some ways, the American climate movement is still just getting started.
When Christmas and Hanukah coincide, as this year, it seems like a doubly joyous season at our household Sue and I thank you all for being part of this fight—and to those of you can afford to pay the modest subscription fee without financial hardship, thanks for keeping this conversation underway! The joy of the season to you all!