Burning Trees While Saving Forests? The Mythology of Bioenergy

In 2014, Scientists and environmentalists condemned work by University of British Columbia, who have genetically engineered (GE) poplar trees for paper and biofuel production, opening the prospect of growing these GE trees like an agricultural crop in the future. 

The poplars were genetically engineered for altered lignin composition to allegedly make them easier to process into paper and biofuels. Groups, however, warn that manipulation of lignin, and the potential contamination of wild poplars with the GE trait, could be extremely dangerous.


By Rachel Smolker


Via Global Forest Coalition

Agriculture, livestock production and logging remain leading drivers of deforestation. But so-called ‘modern’ commercial and industrial-scale bioenergy is becoming increasingly prominent. Though rarely recognised, currently more than half of the energy classed as ‘renewable’ in the EU [1], and only slightly less in the US, consists of bioenergy—biofuels for transportation and burning wood/trees for electricity. Renewable energy promotional materials tend to feature images of solar panels and wind turbines, avoiding the rather less attractive reality of smokestacks, industrial corn and soya farms, and palm oil plantations.

Awareness of the problems with large-scale bioenergy has grown, along with a massive body of scientific literature detailing ad infinitum that because of the large land footprint required and the length of time which forests need to grow, large scale bioenergy (in pretty much any form), results in more, rather than less, climate-damaging emissions, while also destroying biodiversity, displacing food production, and undermining human rights.

Biofuelwatch first turned its attention to wood bioenergy when it became clear to us that burning wood for electricity was likely to take off dramatically. It is technologically straightforward (unlike, for example, cellulosic liquid biofuels) and can enable coal plants and other pre-existing power plant infrastructure to remain viable, so it is favoured by the fossil fuel industry.

Furthermore, wood bioenergy can provide ‘baseload’ power (24/7, year round), thus putting off the need to invest in the electricity storage and interconnectors which are needed to make 100% ‘no-burn’ renewables viable. In addition, public sentiment towards burning wood as renewable energy has been favourable. It is viewed by the public and even environmentalists as ‘natural’. Many environmental organisations initially promoted biomass enthusiastically, even those that later shifted their position on ethanol as competition with food production was recognised. With mandated targets and subsidies in place, it seemed clear that wood biomass would be the ‘low hanging fruit’ for renewables and would rapidly expand on a large scale. And it has.

Accounting trickery perpetuates the claim that wood bioenergy is ‘carbon neutral’ (because trees that are burned might eventually regrow), allowing energy producers to claim to be reducing emissions. As a result they also receive generous subsidies for burning wood, on the same footing as—and therefore competing with—wind, solar and geothermal (non-combustion) renewables.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), wood pellet production has skyrocketed, from 6-7 million tonnes in 2006, to 26 million tonnes in 2015, increasing on average 14% year on year, and it is anticipated to continue to grow exponentially. [2] The bulk of international pellet trade occurs within European countries and between the US and EU, with companies such as DRAX, Oersted (formerly DONG), E.On and RWE purchasing massive quantities of pellets, primarily from the southeastern USA. An estimated 35 pellet plants are now operating or proposed across the southern USA, each with a voracious non-stop appetite for wood. [3]

While the biomass industry continues to claim they use only ‘waste and residue’, it is clear as day that this is not the case–the wood yards of these facilities are stacked with whole trees, including anything that is considered ‘low grade’ that cannot be sold as timber.

An exposé of wood sourcing practices for the pellet manufacturer, Enviva, the largest producer in the US, revealed they were in fact harvesting whole trees from rare remaining pockets of bottomland hardwood forests. [4] According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, over 168,000 acres of wetland forest were at high risk from just this one facility. [5] Enviva ships much of the pellets they produce to the DRAX coal plant in UK, which has been converted to burn 50% wood pellets. In 2016, DRAX burned 6.6 million tonnes of pellets, [6] made from 13.2 million tonnes of wood (since two tonnes of wood are harvested for every tonne of pellets manufactured).

DRAX wood consumption is 1.6 times the UK’s total annual wood production! [7] Yet all of the trees that are cut down, pelletised and shipped across the ocean to burn, provide a mere 0.74% of the UK’s total energy demand. [8] Per unit of energy generated CO2 emissions from burning wood are higher even than for burning coal. [9] Add to that emissions from shipping the pellets across the ocean, emissions from harvesting operations, transportation, drying, and pelletising, soil carbon losses from logging, and the foregone carbon sequestration associated with cutting the trees down, and any proclaimed climate benefit becomes mighty hard to discern. As a reward for this absurdity, the UK government grants DRAX an astonishing €1.5m in subsidies every single day. [10]

When most people hear this for the first time, they are shocked and appalled. “You mean we are cutting down forests, turning them into pellets, shipping them across the ocean to burn in a coal plant, calling it renewable energy and paying subsidies for this as a supposed climate solution?” people ask in amazement. It makes no sense, even to a child.

Many organisations have taken on the issue of the US/EU wood bioenergy debacle (including Dogwood Alliance, NRDC, Partnership for Policy Integrity, Fern and BirdLife International among others). However, despite these campaigns, politicians and policy meetings and even lobby campaigns seem endlessly mired in debates over carbon impacts and sustainability standards. We toil over preparation of report after report detailing the fallacy of burning trees for electricity. Over 800 scientists have written to Members of the European Parliament expressing their concern, stating: “Even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries—as many studies have shown—even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas.’’ [11]

It seems so nonsensical, and yet the policies supporting wood bioenergy (and bioenergy in general) remain, on the whole unchanged.

What will the future hold? As more and more nations get serious about addressing climate change, there is a risk that bioenergy may become increasingly entrenched as a ‘solution’. New bioenergy-related developments and commitments loom on the horizon. Asian markets for wood pellets have been expanding, with growing demand especially from Japan and South Korea. China has set targets to replace a large portion of coal with wood pellets.

Indicative of this broad trend, a joint “Biofuture Platform” initiative was launched by 19 nations at the November 2017 meeting of the UNFCCC in Bonn. Its stated objective is: “to increase the use of low carbon sources (i.e. sustainable bio-mass) as the feedstock for the production of energy, chemicals and materials. In the not-so-distant past, the world relied almost entirely on renewable resources, including biomass, for food, energy, and shelter. We ask you to envision a future where this is once again true – many modern needs including plastics, materials of construction, clothing and more importantly energy, can be met by biomass. It has been estimated that, by 2050, half of [the] world’s chemicals and materials could be produced from renewable resources.” [12]

Of course, much of the world still relies entirely on biomass for food, energy and shelter. But the communities that still depend on ‘traditional’ biomass are amongst the world’s lowest users of energy. If wealthy nations attempt to substitute biomass as a source for their massive energy and material demands, at current levels of fossil-fuelled consumption, their demands will inevitably end in competition with both food production and traditional uses–including by peasant farmers and Indigenous Peoples.

Even at current levels, it is clear that bioenergy is a driver of forest destruction. But, if the many diverse plans to expand its use come to pass, including plans for aviation biofuels and a vast ‘bioeconomy’, we may find ourselves denuding much of the planet in a misguided rush to‘save it’.

As the bioenergy enthusiasts eyeball the planetary landscape to assess ‘global biomass potential’, there is simultaneously growing recognition of the important role that forests could play in staving off the worst impacts of global warming. There is much discussion about the potential for restoration and reestablishment of forests as an ‘easily available’ tool for sequestering carbon, while also providing many other benefits.

But how can we possibly reconcile massive demand for wood and bioenergy crops, with protection and restoration of forests? This is the conundrum that policymakers face—the proverbial problem of ‘how to have your cake and eat it too’. This discord seems to be a major wellspring of head-spinning confusion and manipulative rhetoric about forests in the context of climate change.

First of all, and very fundamentally, there still remains the ongoing deception inherent in the failure to formally distinguish between forests and tree plantations, by FAO, for example. This is in spite of many years of civil society pressure demanding a clear distinction. But confounding the two provides a convenient loophole for the forestry industry. If the definition of ‘forest’ includes an industrial tree plantation destined to be harvested for pulp or bioenergy, then the plantation owner can claim to be growing a ‘forest’ while also claiming to provide renewable energy. One way to have one’s cake and eat it too.

In the USA, confusion, deceptive terminology and profound ignorance about forest ecology are the tools of the trade for forest and biomass industries eager to unravel forest protections. For example, the Trump administration recently introduced a “Resilient Forests Act”. Behind the nice sounding name, the purpose of the bill is to open up public lands to logging on a massive scale, while also curtailing requirements for environmental assessments and largely eliminating any public participation in decision-making.

The timber and biomass industries also have a long-standing public relations campaign based on the claim that it is necessary to ‘manage’ (that is, log) forests to prevent wildfires that threaten people’s lives and property. Their argument rests on the myth that if forests are not logged, they will accumulate too much biomass, and thus provide more fuel resulting in more severe fires. In fact, just the opposite is the case, as both common sense and science have shown. For example, a 2016 study demonstrated that the less a forest has been managed (logged), the less severe the fires. [13] This makes sense to most people who have spent time in old growth and logged over forests. Logging disrupts the canopy, allowing more sunlight to penetrate, drying things out, and supporting the proliferation of flammable undergrowth. Further, it is well established that protecting lives and property is best achieved by clearing trees in direct close proximity to homes, not miles away.

In 2017, when catastrophic wildfires swept through communities in California, republican leaders in the US Congress capitalised on the mood to promote their agenda, essentially arguing that forests should be cut down to prevent them from burning. [14] The biomass industry hopes for subsidies for ‘thinning’, based on fear of fire as a way to acquire cheap feedstock for their projects.

Why has the industry been so successful in perpetuating these myths? In the US, and perhaps elsewhere in the Global North, the answer may lie with an apathetic public that suffers from a profound lack of understanding about forests. Urbanisation, and the failure of our education system, have resulted in a large portion of the population never having stepped foot in a real forest. If they have been into the woods at all, chances are it was actually or had once been a tree plantation. Remaining patches of old growth forest, or even diverse and healthy secondary growth, are rare.

Following the industrial revolution and the “timber boom’ that ensued in the early 1900s it is estimated that more than two thirds of American forests have been heavily cut or leveled at least once. The giants that were cut – massive towering pines, huge, abundant and productive American chestnuts (a major staple food source for wildlife and people alike), great towering firs, hemlocks, cedars, oak and hickory have gone, some at least 200-400 years old when they were felled.

Regrowth, where it can occur, is a long, slow process, and most of us will never see a genuine old growth forest (though many second growth forests are now again spectacularly diverse and awe inspiring). We do not know what we are missing. Our sense of ‘forest’ lacks historical grounding and our knowledge of how forests work—to support life on earth—is woefully lacking. Hence we are wide open, vulnerable and undiscerning receptacles of nonsensical industrial propaganda.

Somehow, we must find our way back through the smoke and mirrors, beyond the propaganda and misleading terminology, to a reawakening of interest and awareness of the precious nature of real forests. A wholesale rejection of the notion that forests are a source of ‘renewable energy’ is urgently needed as nations decide how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/File:Table_1-Share_of_renewables_in_gross_inland_energy_consumption_2016.png

[2] https://task40.ieabioenergy.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/IEA-Wood-Pellet-Study_final-2017-06.pdf

[3] https://www.southernenvironment.org/uploads/maps/SELC_WoodPelletExportMap_2017_0707_map+table.pdf

[4] https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/enviva-wood-pellets-FS.pdf

[5] https://www.southernenvironment.org/news-and-press/press-releases/statement-from-selc-on-new-report-assessing-threats-to-southeast-wildlife

[6] https://www.drax.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Drax-Group-plc-annual-report-and-accounts-2016-Smart-Energy-Solutions.pdf p18

[7] Drax burned 6.6 million tonnes of pellets in 2016 (https://www.drax.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Drax-Group-plc-annual-report-and-accounts-2016-Smart-Energy-Solutions.pdf), made from 13.2 million tonnes of green wood. By comparison, the UK’s total wood production that year was 11 million tonnes of green wood, according to the Forestry Commission (https://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-7aqdgc).

[8] Burning 6.6 million tonnes of pellets generated 12.7 TWh of electricity in 2016 (https://www.drax.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Drax-Group-plc-annual-report-and-accounts-2016-Smart-Energy-Solutions.pdf). The UK’s total electricity use in 2016 was 303.8 TWh (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/633029/DUKES_2017_Press_Notice.pdf), so Drax’s biomass supplied 4.2% of UK electricity that year. However, electricity contributed just 17.5% of the UK’s final energy demand that year. So Drax’s biomass contributed 0.74% of the UK’s final energy demand in 2016.

[9] https://www.pfpi.net/carbon-emissions

[10] https://www.drax.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Drax-Group-plc-annual-report-and-accounts-2016-Smart-Energy-Solutions.pdf p128

[11] https://eutoday.net/news/energy/2018/scientists-urge-eu-to-revise-renewable-energy-directive

[12] https://biofutureplatform.org/statements/

[13] Bradley CM, Hanson CT and DellaSala DA (2016). Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States? Ecosphere 7(10): e01492. 10.1002/ecs2.1492

[14] https://www.williamsnews.com/news/2017/nov/07/house-approves-bill-speed-logging-combat-wildfires