When I think of Europe, I generally think “socially progressive and green”. Their food is largely GMO and hormone-free. Plastics are free from harmful Phthalate chemicals. Public transportation is ubiquitous and just about everyone rides. Heck, they even have universal healthcare. And unlike here in the US, the government has embraced the realities of climate change, mandating reductions in carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, the phase-out of coal and new investments in renewable energy.
But, over the past year I must say, my romantic view of Europe as a beacon of enlightenment has been shattered by its misguided climate policies that treat burning trees for electricity as a “clean and green” alternative to coal. Recent scientific studies warn that burning trees for electricity might actually increase CO2 emissions. In addition, new evidence has emerged documenting that current European demand for wood as fuel is destroying some of the world’s most precious and vulnerable ecosystems – wetland forests in the Southern US.
Yet, it looks like the UK and EU governments are choosing to ignore the recent climate science and emerging evidence of bad logging practices and is charging full steam ahead in transitioning to trees as a primary fuel source for generating electricity. The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change released its “sustainability criteria” for biomass yesterday and last week, a draft document outlining the sustainability criteria the EU is proposing for biomass was leaked to the press. Unfortunately, neither the EU’s proposed “sustainability criteria” or the UK’s adopted criteria require utilities to fully account for carbon emissions associated with tree burning. And neither provide safeguards for Southern forests, Europe’s leading source of imported wood for fuel for electricity.
Both ignore a 2013 European Commission Joint Research report, which warns that when it comes to harvesting trees for biomass “the assumption of ‘carbon neutrality’ is not valid since harvest of wood for bioenergy causes a decrease of the forest carbon stock, which may not be recovered in short time, leading to a temporary increase in atmospheric CO2 and, hence, increased radiative forcing and global warming.” Equally as troublesome, the UK has embraced the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification system, which certifies destructive logging practices like large-scale clearcutting and the conversion of natural forests to plantations as “sustainable”. The proposed EU criteria also fail to adequately ensure responsible forestry practices.
Ariel Brunne, a campaigner with BirdLife Europe, one of the EUs largest environmental organizations, referred to the EU proposed criteria as a “sham” in an article entitled Commission floats ‘weak’ criteria for biomassthat was published in the European Voice last week. The article highlighted how the EU seems to be siding with utility companies like Drax and wood pellet manufacturers like Enviva who assert that strong forest sustainability criteria are unnecessary for biomass because most of the wood imported to be burned in Europe’s power stations comes from forests in North America, and not from countries with a “troubling history of land degradation such as Indonesia and Brazil.” But, in the Southern United States, the leading exporter of wood pellets to Europe, there are virtually no laws regulating industrial forestry on private lands which make up 90% of the forests in the region.
Just like Indonesia and Brazil, this region of the world is a hot spot for biodiversity (home to the most biologically-diverse temperate forests in the world) and does have a “troubling history of land degradation”. Tens of millions of acres of natural forests across this region of the world have been destroyed to make way for fast-growing industrial tree plantations. This practice has contributed to a well-documented, significant decline in hardwood wetland forests and the near disappearance of entire ecosystems, such as the long-leaf pine savannahs, which has brought countless species to the brink of extinction. Destructive clearcutting in remaining natural forests, including wetlands, is increasingly common with the explosive growth in the wood pellet export market to Europe.
For example, Enviva, the South’s largest exporter of wood pellets to Europe, relies on clearcutting in hardwood wetland forests to make its pellets. The hardwood wetlands forests of the Southern US are some of the most biologically-rich temperate forests in the world. In addition to storing substantial amounts of carbon in the standing trees and soil, the slow-growing bottomland hardwood forests along the US Atlantic Coastal Plain buffer natural and human communities from storms and floods, maintain water quality of rivers and estuaries, and provide critical habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife. Yet, the bottomland forests that once covered this region have been reduced to a mere fraction of their original extent. Niether the UK nor the EU criteria as currently written will do anything to protect what remains of this and other important ecosystems throughout North America, which are increasingly threatened by clearcutting to supply fuel to European utility companies like Drax.
The window for us to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change and prevent the massive extinction of species is rapidly closing. In the absence of strict carbon accounting and protections for forests, burning wood to make electricity is like playing with fire, taking us down a dangerous path of continued ecological destruction where we are all sure to get burned.
Fortunately, the EU Government still has an opportunity to get this right, just as it has on so many other critical issues of our time. Now, more than ever, we need Europe to lead the world in carving the path forward to a clean energy future. Burning trees is not it. Come on Europe, we are counting on you.