Co-written by Adam Macon and Sasha Stashwick
Standing forests are a critical tool in the fight against climate change.
Cutting trees down to use as fuel in energy production–known as biomass energy or bioenergy–is one of the most counterproductive things we can do if our goal is clean air and a livable planet. Despite this reality, policymakers around the world have invested heavily in bioenergy. Nowhere is this more true than in the European Union, where bioenergy policies in the UK and other member states enable billions in subsidies each year to flow to the balance sheets of large utility companies, padding their profits and financing the conversion of old coal-fired power plants to burn wood.
Meanwhile, the evidence of the climate and ecological harm wrought by the biomass industry continues to mount.
Yet too many policymakers remain unwilling to acknowledge the impacts of bioenergy and adequately limit its growth. They argue that the industry’s impacts on the climate, forests, and people are still uncertain, that we need more studies, more “proof”.
For five years running, leading media outlets, NGO’s, climate scientists, health professionals, and even official government reports have offered this proof time and time again. Scientists tell us that burning whole trees and other large-diameter wood increases carbon pollution compared to coal for many decades. Public health experts tell us burning biomass emits myriad harmful air pollutants, with serious consequences for air quality and public health. Economists tell us biomass conversions are a bad investment compared to truly clean energy sources, such as solar and wind. Communities tell us that they don’t want biomass producers in their backyards. And for five years running, respected reporters and local and national NGOs have documented the unsustainable logging practices uses to source the biomass industry, putting some of the most biodiverse and valuable forests in the world in peril.
Unlike the biomass industry, these communities, advocates, reporters and researchers have no political or financial stake in bioenergy subsidies.
It’s time to turn the tables and place the burden of proof where it belongs: at the feet of the biomass industry and the policymakers who are its benefactors.
These policymakers are elected to advance the public’s interest. They pay out biomass subsidies under the guise of advancing national goals of increasing renewable energy production and taking meaningful action on climate change. In exchange for the public’s generous support, biomass-burning utilities are assumed to deliver a public good: cleaner air and lower carbon emissions. Both parties should be held accountable for demonstrating that the public is getting what it’s paying for.
Enter the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP). The SBP was created in 2013 by biomass companies to provide assurances that their wood pellets and other biomass fuel are sustainable and legally sourced. Unfortunately, from the start, this certification scheme was dominated by industry and built to allow the industry to effectively “self police”.
Now, a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Dogwood Alliance reveals the program to be highly deficient and not a credible tool in assessing the carbon emissions or ecological impacts of biomass producers.
Amongst the key findings is that the program uses flawed and incomplete carbon accounting, 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, and fails to provide performance-based thresholds and protections. Put plainly, the SBP allows the biomass industry to hide their carbon emissions and destructive forestry practices to fuel an environmentally damaging energy industry. In doing so, it actually undercuts vital efforts to address climate change and protect forests and communities.
The impacts of industrial scale bioenergy are now well known and well documented.
Hiding behind a smokescreen of an industry certification scheme such as the SBP doesn’t change the facts on the ground–or in the atmosphere!
The message to policymakers cannot be clearer: if they are looking to the SBP to provide assurances on the sustainability and carbon intensity of biomass fuels, they cannot be confident in using it.
The world has been generating electricity the same way since the 1880’s.
Burning biomass is a step backwards, not forwards towards the 21st century clean energy system we deserve and our climate desperately needs.
To truly act on climate change, European policymakers must end subsidies for dirty and destructive industrial-scale biomass and invest in truly clean and low-carbon energy sources like solar and wind and the protection and expansion of our standing forests.
Other key findings of the comprehensive analysis of the SBP include:
- The SBP does not require calculation of emissions at the smokestack when biomass is burned, essentially classifying biomass “carbon neutral”, on a par with truly clean energy technologies such as wind and solar. As noted, 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 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 and rarely require on-the-ground verification.
- The SBP Feedstock Standard lacks concrete, performance-orientated thresholds and protections, and thus provides little assurance regarding environmental or social protection in source forests.