This week I attended the Industrial Pellet Trade and Transport Summit in Atlanta, a gathering of wood pellet manufacturers, European utility companies, wood suppliers and consultants organized by the Industrial Wood Pellet Association (IWPA), to discuss market development for wood pellet exports from the US South. I was impressed with the welcome I received from folks like Seth Ginther, the Executive Director of the IWPA, Todd Bush of Green Circle (owner of the second largest wood pellet plant in the US) and Nigel Hildyard of Eggborough Power in Europe. Although they were very aware of Dogwood Alliance and the launch of the “Our Forests Aren’t Fuel” Campaign challenging the logging and exporting of Southern forests to Europe to be burned to generate electricity, they seemed genuinely appreciative of an opportunity to engage with me. I, too, appreciated the opportunity to engage with them about the issues.
These are folks with whom I am sure I would enjoy taking a hike or having some conversations about life over beers. They did seem at least partially motivated by what they perceive to be an opportunity to be a part of a green energy revolution. I also give them credit for being smart entrepreneurs and sharp businessmen. After all, there is a growing market for wood pellets and money to be made. The companies that make up the IWPA are filling a niche and working to make it happen in the Southern US.
But here is the dilemma: the wood pellet manufacturers must position themselves as providing a low-carbon sustainable fuel alternative to coal because if they can’t…well, there simply won’t be any justification for their industry. I (and countless others) fundamentally disagree that burning trees is a clean, green energy solution.
While there are certainly some intelligent and even well-intentioned folks involved, I did not get the impression that the wood pellet industry or European utility companies are taking concerns very seriously or that they are truly on the cutting-edge (no pun intended) of corporate sustainability. For an industry that maintains it is a linchpin to a clean energy future, the way they talked about sustainability was so outdated it felt like I had stepped back in time.
The presentations at the Atlanta Summit again and again reinforced the message that there is really nothing to worry about in the Southern US when it comes to carbon emissions or forest sustainability, even though recent, countless, prominent scientific studies have documented reason for concern and there is mounting opposition from ENGOs in Europe and the US. For an industry claiming to hold the sustainability mantel, shockingly absent was any acknowledgement of the unique ecological values, species and ecosystem services of Southern forests, the historical loss of tens of millions of acres of natural forests to intensively managed pine plantations in the wake of increasing market demand for wood or the countless species in the region that are declining, rare and/or endanger of becoming extinct.
When I asked John Keppler, the CEO of Enviva, what role the wood pellet industry plays in the continued loss of natural forests to plantations, his response was something along the lines of, “we could have an intellectual discussion for days about how to define natural forests, but the most important thing is to keep forests in forests.” Translation: making sure there is enough wood to supply wood pellets to this growing market is more important than sustaining ecological diversity in the forest.
This seemed to be a major theme of the conference. Though the words “sustainable sourcing” were said over and over again, the focus was squarely on the “sustainability” of the wood supply. Equally as telling was the fact that the highly-criticized Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) was highlighted in the session about forest certification. Rather than coming out of the gate with a strong sustainability platform, these guys are aligning themselves with the laggards. The whole experience felt so yesterday…so behind the curve of progress compared to the big players in the solid wood and paper market. I had to double check my calendar that it was indeed 2013 and not 1996!
Really Europe? This is your climate strategy? Taking us backward is not the way to the future.
Unspoken is the fact that burning trees for electricity increases rather than reduces carbon emissions. For the pellet industry to acknowledge this inconvenient truth would mean conceding that their whole business model is flawed and investments will be lost. Can’t let that happen, right? So they will be releasing a study of their own in the next several weeks, making the case that burning trees is good for the climate.
Those who are truly committed to solving the climate crisis, sustaining the world’s forests and not just out to make a quick opportunistic dollar will take concerns about the climate and forest impacts associated with burning trees for electricity much more seriously. True sustainability leaders don’t just refute environmental concerns, they embrace them, change course and become a part of the solution. The old ‘fox guarding the henhouse’ strategy just isn’t going to fly in the 21st century.