Are forests the new coal?

New research reveals burning wood for energy set to increase by 250%

Fern NGO
6 min readNov 29, 2018

By Katja Garson

The word ‘bio’ has become synonymous with all that is green, good, and sustainable.

Yet around the world — from Argentina to Albania — forests are being cut down to supply an industry which loudly touts the ‘bio’ label: the bioenergy industry.

New data published by the Forest, Climate and Biomass working group of the Environmental Paper Network (EPN) of which Fern is a member reveals the extent of the industry’s expansion: it has doubled over the last ten years, and is estimated to increase by a staggering 250 per cent in the next decade.

This is highly concerning — a growing body of research demonstrates that burning forest biomass could exacerbate climate change.

Photo: Tero Laakso / Flickr

Burning shame

But to understand why scientists and more than 130 NGOs are so concerned at this expansion, we first need to understand what is wrong with burning biomass for energy.

Despite industry lobbyists claiming it is carbon neutral, burning wood emits between three and 50 per cent more carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of energy created than burning coal, and it takes many decades for trees to regrow and absorb all the carbon emitted.

The letter signed by 800 scientists enforces this point, “[even] if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries… even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas.”

Harvesting destruction

If the industry is to expand by 250% in the next decade, where will all the biomass come from? The industry claims to be based on wood residues that accrue in sawmills — material at the end of the hierarchy of uses, that cannot be used for other purposes. Yet studies show that whole logs will be required in many scenarios, as residues will simply not be able to meet demand.

Indeed, the removal of whole logs, limbs, and stumps is already happening. For example Enviva, the largest wood pellet producer in the US, has been transporting whole logs to its Southampton, Virginia and Ahoskie facilities.

Use of biomass for energy has doubled in last 10 years

Research that the EPN have released today shows that wood pellet production has more than quadrupled in the last ten years, reaching 26 million tonnes in 2016.

The biggest percentage increases were in Korea, Poland and the UK. Production and consumption of wood pellets is highest in Europe, while large quantities are imported from North America.

Across the 36 Organisation for Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, solid biofuels now provide for 36 per cent of renewable energy (more than the combined share of wind, solar, tidal and geothermal energy).

The EPN also found that globally, the use of forest biomass for electricity and heat production has almost doubled over the past decade from 30 Gigawatts in 2007 to over 60 GW in 2017.

EU setting a bad example

The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive has played a central role in driving the relentless rise in bioenergy use. This Directive wrongly classes bioenergy as carbon neutral and encourages Member States to increase their use. As a result, Europe (combining both EU-28 and non-Member States) is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of wood pellets by far. It accounts for 49 per cent of global production, and is also the largest net importer of biomass (mainly from the US and Canada). There is further considerable trade within Europe (primarily from the Baltic countries), and from Russia to the EU Member States. Such biomass exports are devastating natural ecosystems.

The use of biomass in Europe differs from country to country. In Italy, Germany and Scandinavia, pellets are primarily used for heating, while industrial energy production dominates in the UK, Denmark and Belgium. In the Netherlands, co-firing of wood pellets in coal plants started in 2017 and is expected to increase, while in France, conversion to co-firing will prevent coal power plants from closing, even after the planned 2022 coal ‘phase-out’. In effect, a phase-out will not happen, and the power plants will continue to pollute by burning both coal and biomass.

The East follows suit

EPN data reveals that major growth is expected in Asia, as Japan, South Korea and potentially China follow the EU’s bad example. These countries together have a population of 1.5 billion — three times the population of the EU, and therefore the potential to put huge pressure on forest biomass resources. Yet the South Korean and Japanese governments have already provided a variety of biomass subsidies, including subsidies that, in many cases, are not being made available for wind and solar projects.

Vietnam has become the biggest exporter of pellets in the region, primarily supplying South Korea and Japan (who also import from Canada, the USA and Russia). Vietnam will remain the largest Asian exporter, with its exports doubling from 1.6 million tonnes in 2017 to 3 million tonnes in 2027.

Of all Asian countries, Japan presents the most rapid growth trajectory, with its demand for wood pellets projected to balloon from 0.5 million tonnes in 2017, to 9 million tonnes in 2027.

Globally, demand for industrial pellets is expected to more than double to over 36 million tonnes within the next decade.

The spectre of biomass present

The spectre of biomass future

Damaging the air

Just like burning fossil fuels, burning biomass pollutes the air, undermines community rights and interests, and harms human health and well-being. Living in proximity to a biomass power plant causes exposure to particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide, which can lead to respiratory, skin, and eye issues, as well as impacting particularly on the very young or old.

Clear-cutting through rights and biodiversity

The increased demand for biomass revealed by the EPN is already pushing clearcutting to spread malignantly across landscapes.

Further industry growth is likely to occur by expanding supply from tropical, temperate and boreal forests in developing and developed countries, posing an escalating threat to diverse and unique forest ecosystems, and undermining forests’ climate mitigation potential.

The bioenergy industry also creates social conflict and tramples on rights. In many locations from Lapland to the Southern US, the bioenergy industry threatens the rights and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities, decimating landscapes of deep cultural and ancestral value.

Clearcut, United States

We can’t rely on bioenergy to replace coal if we want to tackle climate change

We face daily news headlines about wildfires, hurricanes, and melting icecaps. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that to avoid catastrophic climate change, extinction and human displacement, we must remove as well as reduce CO2 from the atmosphere. Yet the global wood pellet industry is planning a vast expansion — threatening all our climate mitigation efforts.

As global leaders prepare to convene in Katowice to discuss Paris Agreement commitments, we need policies that recognise that biomass energy is not ‘green’.

Rather than help mitigate climate change, the demand for bioenergy is destroying forests at the exact moment that we need to be protecting and restoring them. It’s time to stop subsidising this damaging industry and instead invest money in forest protection and true renewables such as wind and solar.