DATE: March 4, 2019
SNIP: In the lowland forests of the American southeast, loblolly pines and cypress trees are grabbing carbon dioxide from the air right now. Using power from the sun, they release the oxygen and bind the carbon, building trunks, barks, and leaves.
But much of that carbon won’t stay there. As it turns out, millions of tons of wood from these forests each year are being shipped across the Atlantic, and burned in power plants in countries like the UK and the Netherlands, in the name of slowing climate change.
As they steadily wean themselves off coal, European Union nations are banking on wood energy, or “biomass,” to meet their obligations under the Paris climate agreement.
That’s because in 2009, the EU committed itself to 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, and put biomass on the renewables list. Several countries, like the United Kingdom, subsidized the biomass industry, creating a sudden market for wood not good enough for the timber industry. In the United States, Canada, and Eastern Europe, crooked trees, bark, treetops, and sawdust have been pulped, pressed into pellets, and heat-dried in kilns. By 2014, biomass accounted for 40 percent of the EU’s renewable energy, by far the largest source. By 2020, it’s projected to make up 60 percent, and the US plans to follow suit.
Fueling this boom is a simple, intuitive idea: that biomass is both renewable and “carbon neutral,” and a way to keep an economy built on burning fossil fuels humming along.
But a cadre of scientists and policy activists are now pushing back, saying that biomass energy rests on deceptive accounting. Rather than being carbon neutral, biomass is liquidating millions of tons of irreplaceable carbon stocks in the midst of a climate crisis already out of control.
In 2009, as Massachusetts began debating whether to treat biomass as carbon neutral, he dove into the science. By assessing carbon emissions from bioenergy, and the slow regrowth rates of a replacement forest, he concluded that biomass stood to be “a serious problem.”
The analysis was later confirmed by a colleague at MIT, John Sterman, who did the math, and confirmed that burning wood today would worsen climate change, “at least through the year 2100 — even if wood displaces coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel.”
Campaigners are seeking to stop the EU counting wood as a renewable energy source, in a lawsuit filed at the Court of Justice on Monday.
Plaintiffs from six European countries and the US argue that burning biomass for heat and power is a false solution to climate change. The EU Renewable Energy Directive promotes logging of ancient forests, according to the brief, contravening the bloc’s higher principles and individuals’ rights.
The suit challenges a major plank of efforts to generate 32% of EU energy from renewable sources by 2030. Nearly two thirds of EU renewables come from various forms of bioenergy, with more projects in planning.