The Biomass Peril
By Robert Hunziker
Woody biomass, or burning trees to produce renewable energy, is spreading beyond the shores of Europe, where it’s wildly popular and outpacing solar and wind. It’s headed for Japan and South Korea, where subsidies for woody biomass displace funding for solar and wind. Umm, what’s wrong with this picture?
In order to know specifically what’s wrong it’s pertinent to take notice of the factual details about the integrity of woody biomass to discover whether it’s truly one of the biggest blunders of the 21st century.
Woody biomass is not a viable solution for global warming mitigation purposes. It has been the subject of considerable scientific debate with several voices expressing alarm over the absurd concept of burning trees to reduce global emissions. It’s shocking!
Nevertheless, it is happening right under our collective noses and fully endorsed by the European Union (EU) yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not endorse it. This is proof-positive that absurdity knows no limits.
After this article was written and before it was posted the EU Environment Committee voted to amend the European Union’s stance on woody biomass. It appears the EU is scrambling to save face. See more details at the end of this article.
The term “carbon neutral,” which is not the same as “zero carbon” and not a scientific term, but glorified by the EU when used to distinguish a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions really means this: “Someone else, at some other time, removes carbon, so I can emit more.” (Quote by Dr. William Moomaw, IPCC co-author of several reports)
If you’re worried about the deleterious impact of global warming, DUCK! You’re about to get hit right between the eyes as woody biomass emits as much CO2 as coal, or more. And, it’s popular. Developed countries like it better than coal. It’s cheaper than building solar or wind, and it’s easy, and it helps countries meet the Nationally Determined Contributions at the heart of the Paris Agreement. Here’s how: Stop shoveling coal into the furnace and replace it with woody biomass chips, Eureka! The lights go on!
But, there’s a catch: Woody Biomass is one of Runaway Global Warming’s favorite accomplices. It’s a stealthy renewable faux source emitting tons of excessive amounts of CO2 that people mistakenly think is just fine, whereas coal has a dirty image but emits less CO2 than woody biomass.
Contrary to popular opinion by proponents of woody biomass, replanting trees to offset CO2 emitted by burning woody biomass is not true (not even close to true), more on this later.
Furthermore and contrary to statements by forest biomass companies: “Despite claims from forest biomass proponents, the IPCC does not even assess, let alone support, the use of forest bioenergy and BECCS as a climate solution and has not determined that biomass is essential to addressing climate change. (Source: What the IPCC Really Says About Forest Biomass & Climate Change, National Resources Defense Council –NRDC- Nov. 9, 2021)
According to the NRDC report on the IPCC position: “Cutting and burning forests in the southeastern United States – the leading global region for wood pellet manufacturing – leads to a net shift of carbon from the land to the air that lasts for decades,” Ibid. That’s horrible news for the woody biomass industry, which is growing like a weed, spreading across the globe.
Bottom line, major developed countries the use woody biomass operate under the pretense that they are meeting carbon reduction goals under the guidelines of IPCC AR6 when in fact they are amplifying global warming.
That results in a hopeless scenario where nobody knows what to believe. The only reliable data points are CO2 levels from independent entities like NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Hawaii managed by NOAA scientists and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. For example, the CO2 weekly average for May 8th was 421.13 ppm versus 418.34 ppm one year ago. That’s a rapid rate of increase +2.79 ppm, which is far above the historical average, which means annual CO2 emissions are truly rapidly escalating. This has extremely negative ramifications for ecosystems, biodiversity loss, the climate system, and last but not least, Homo sapiens, the main protagonists of this Greek tragedy
And, oh yes, speaking of global warming, especially to the shrilly denier charlatans, it is notable that worldwide drought is on a chilling rampage. Name any continent, except Antarctica, which has its own problems, and destructive drought is there. For specific references, Google: (1) World Drought Gets Worse, Cities Ration, May 9, 2022 (2) Adapting to Drought, May 3, 2022 (3) Dangerous Heat Across the Globe, January 24, 2022 (4) Drought Clobbers the World, August 27, 2021.
The Woody Biomass Growth Industry
Woody biomass, a multi-billion dollar world market is growing from its major base in the EU and UK by spreading to Japan and South Korea. Those two economic powerhouses are rapidly adopting it as a solution to meet greenhouse gas emission mitigation standards by flipping coal usage to woody biomass tree burning.
Yikes! Don’t they know (their scientists or engineers or somebody knowledgeable) that woody biomass will increase CO2 emissions, the same as coal, and then some?
The only way they’ll legitimately meet their emission targets is by illegitimately (cheating) using fancy accounting principles which of course is the modus operandi, stating that woody biomass is carbon neutral and of course they’ve got the EU imprimatur to prove it. Even better yet as for falsifying records, the EU does not recognize CO2 emissions from woody biomass, and it is largely ignored by the IPCC. So, why count it? Yes, it is true that for some inexplicable reason (maybe the carbon neutral ruse) the EU does not understand that burning trees emits CO2, same as coal. Hence, it’s easy to falsify records about achieving targets towards net zero by 2050.
In all fairness, it should be noted that coal usage does not burn trees, which actually makes it a better solution than woody biomass (P.S.-this article does not endorse coal): “All of this wood burning is putting intensifying pressure on global forests — which are desperately important for the tremendous amounts of carbon they store.” (Source: COP 26: E.U. is Committed to Forest Biomass Burning to Cut Fossil Fuel Use, Mongabay, November 2022)
Several recent studies have exposed false claims that woody pellets are manufactured from “waste wood or residues such as limbs, tops, scraps, or rotted trees.” Analyses of woody biomass operations in Canada (BC) and the US (southern states), in some cases, showed the vast majority of material consists of boles or tree trunks, not scrap waste material.
According to the Southern Environmental Law Center: “Despite industry claims, most of the wood used to manufacture pellets is not waste wood or residues – like limbs, tops, scraps, or rotten trees. Instead, the vast majority of material harvested for these wood pellet facilities were tree trunks or boles.” (Source: New Study Confirms Harmful Impacts of Biomass Industry, Southern Environmental Law Center, March 28, 2022)
A study of Canada’s Inland Temperate Rainforest at the site of a major woody biomass manufacturer: “According to the NGO Sustainable Biomass Program, the use of whole logs has ballooned from 6% in 2019 to 50% in 2020 (Ed.-SBP claims 36% in an updated statement). Still, satellite imagery by the Living Atlas of the World “confirmed a shift to whole trees.” Furthermore, a 2021 Google Image shows log piles around the wood-pellet plant that are equivalent to four soccer fields, which is an eye-opening 6xs the area of wood residuals on the property. (Source: Burning Up: The Controversial Biofuel Threatening BC’s Last Inland Rainforest, The Whale, 2022)
According to the Environmental Paper Network, a global coalition of forest advocates that tracks biomass, demand for pellets in Japan will rise to 9 million metric tons annually by 2027, up from 0.5 million metric tons in 2017. South Korea will hit 8.2 million metric tons annually by 2027, up from 2.4 million metric tons in 2017. That Asian combination is close to future demand predicted for both the EU and the U.K.
The South Korean government subsidy for biomass is so substantial that the country will reduce investment in wind and solar to make room for woody biomass, which is a prime example of out-and-out insanity at work.
Henceforth, Woody Biomass will meaningfully contribute to excessive greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to heating up the planet. Global warming is the only winner in this race to the bottom of upside down global warming mitigation craziness.
Even more perplexing, in the face of the EU not recognizing CO2 emissions from burning woody biomass, in November 2021 more than 100 nations agreed at the Glasgow UN climate summit to: “reduce global deforestation as a primary climate-mitigation strategy.” Yet, doesn’t woody biomass include chopping down trees, which works against the 100-nation declaration?
“Forest advocates have been arguing for years that burning wood for energy on an industrial scale, a practice virtually nonexistent little more than a decade ago, poses a host of environmental threats while undermining effective global warming mitigation efforts, these include: (1) increased deforestation (2) elevated carbon emissions (3) loss of carbon sequestration capacity and (4) adverse biodiversity impacts,” Ibid.
Woody Biomass proponents claim they replant trees to replace chopped down trees. So, no harm done as the newly planted trees will absorb the CO2 from burned trees. Wrong!
According to John Sterman (MIT), a biomass expert, the carbon released today by burning wood pellets “will take 44-to-104 years to be reabsorbed by new tree plantings,” Ibid.
That should be reason enough, standing alone as one primary fact about the negative impact, to abandon woody biomass altogether.
But there is more: Making matters even worse, wood pellets produce more emissions per unit of energy than carbon-intensive coal because wood isn’t as energy dense as coal, which is one more reason why coal is better than woody biomass.
“Increasing biomass burning for energy in place of coal [fails] to reduce emissions at the smokestack and actually increases them,” according to Peg Putt, a leader of the Environmental Paper Network in Australia. “Also, where forest biomass from natural forests is burnt, it is depleting the carbon stocks of those forests and undermines their potential to sequester carbon during the vital period for emissions reductions between now and 2050,” Ibid.
It’s nearly impossible to find a worse approach to fixing global warming than substituting woody biomass for coal. Maybe tar sands?
Facts About Woody Biomass:
“The wood pellet industry is a monster out of control… Burning wood puts out more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity produced than coal does.” (Bill Moomaw, emeritus professor Tufts University and co-author of several IPCC reports – 2019 Mongabay interview).
More than 500 scientists & economists signed a letter addressed to: (1) President Joseph Biden, (2) EU President Ursula Von der Leyen, (3) Charles Michel, President of the EU Council, (4) Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga and (5) So. Korean President Moon Jae-in: “We urge you not to undermine both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning trees to generate energy.” (Source: 500+ Experts Call on World’s Nations to Not Burn Forest to Make Energy, Mongabay, February 16, 2021)
The letter from the 500 scientists and economists states: “Overall, for each kilowatt hour of heat or electricity produced, [burning] wood initially is likely to add two to three times as much carbon to the air as using fossil fuels, refuting the policy and industry claims of zero emissions.”
Nearly 800 scientists and academics, including two Nobel laureates and three winners of the US National Medal of Science, signed a similar letter in 2018.
Under the EU’s second Renewable Energy Directive (REDII) — tolerated by the United Nations under the Paris Climate Agreement — emissions from burning forest biomass are not counted at all. This one shocking fact is nearly impossible to read without falling to one’s knees in utter disbelief.
In Europe 42,210 people signed a petition to end EU support for “fake renewables,” i.e., burning trees is not a climate solution. (Source: EU Bioenergy, News, January 25, 2021) The petition did not influence the EU decision to continue championing woody biomass.
In the UK, the Drax Group converted 4 of 6 coal-generating units to biomass, powering 12% of UK electricity for 4 million households. The Drax biomass plant has an enormous appetite for wood, e.g., in less than two hours an entire freight train of wooden pellets goes up in smoke. That could be up to 12 freight train loads of wood pellets going up in smoke every 24 hours. That’s an amazing image to behold!
According to Drax’s PR department, the operation has slashed CO2 by over 80% since 2012, claiming to be “the largest decarbonization project in Europe.” (Source: Biomass Energy: Green or Dirty? Environment & Energy – Feature Article, Jan. 8, 2020)
Yet, when scientists analyze Drax’s claims, they do not hold up. Not even close! When wood pellets burn, Drax assumes the released carbon is recaptured instantly by new growth. That is a fairy tale. John Sterman (MIT), a biomass expert, claims the carbon released today by burning wood pellets “will take 44-to-104 years to be reabsorbed by new tree plantings.”
An article entitled The “Green Energy” That Might Be Ruining the Planet appeared in Politico, March 2021: “Here’s a multibillion-dollar question that could help determine the fate of the global climate: If a tree falls in a forest—and then it’s driven to a mill, where it’s chopped and chipped and compressed into wood pellets, which are then driven to a port and shipped across the ocean to be burned for electricity in European power plants—does it warm the planet? Most scientists and environmentalists say yes.”
“Burning wood puts out more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity produced then coal does.” (Source: Humanity’s Mortality Moment, @ 25:00 on video, ScientistsWarning.TV, December 11,2019)
Carbon is emitted in the biomass combustion process, resulting in a net increase of CO2 (Columbia University study)
Woody biomass power plants actually produce more global warming CO2 than fossil fuel plants (Earth Institute).
Europe now generates more energy from burning wood than from wind and solar combined, even though solar produces 100 times as much power per acre as biomass. Please reread that!
“The whole thing boils down to the obvious fact that burning things emits carbon quickly and re-growing things to sequester carbon takes a long time,” according to Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a US-based environmental nonprofit. “In other words, climate change will have wreaked havoc long before those young trees mature into an ecosystem that holds as much carbon as the one they replaced.” (Source: Burning Up: The Controversial Biofuel Threatening BC’s Last Inland Rainforests, The Whale, 2022)
After this article was written, the EU Parliament’s Environment Committee voted to reduce “eligibility of heat and power from burning trees and other forest biomass as counting toward the EU’s renewable energy targets, and largely ending renewable energy subsidies for forest biomass, with certain exceptions.” (Source: European Parliament’s Environment Committee Recommends Curtailing Burning Forest Biomass for Renewable Energy, Forest Defenders Alliance, May 17, 2022)
NGOs are concerned by the amount of wood that would still be burned under the agreement. Lina Burnelius, Project Leader at Protect the Forest Sweden, said: “We are afraid that this half-step will be celebrated as some sort of victory, when in reality more than half of the biomass burned will, under this proposal, still receive subsidies and still not be included in the emissions statistics. The gap between what the science shows is needed and what’s been put on the table is severe,” Ibid.
Meanwhile, over the past decade biomass power plants established solid operations in the U.K., the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Sweden. Asia is the new growth market, including Japan and South Korea with India ramping up and African nations looking to get involved.
“The result of this soaring demand: Trees are being stripped from old growth forests, boreal forests and/or native hardwood forests in Canada, Eastern Europe, the U.S. Southeast and Russia; and cut in tropical forests in Vietnam and Malaysia, all to produce wood pellets.” (Source: COP26: Surging Wood Pellet Industry Threatens Climate, Say Experts, Mongabay, Nov. 9, 2021)
By all appearances, woody biomass is an unstoppable behemoth initiated by the EU, which is now scrambling, as it tries to undo a monster of its own creation.
Forget about achieving net zero anytime this lifetime. Woody biomass is on the rise!
Based in Los Angeles, Robert Hunziker is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and published in over 50 journals, magazines and sites worldwide.
Robert Hunziker can be reached at [email protected].
This article was originally published on May 20, 2022 © Counterpunch