Most of Europe new “green” power has actually come from burning wood in converted coal power stations. The forests of North Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi — as well as those in Europe — are being destroyed to sustain a European fantasy about renewable energy.
A loophole in carbon-accounting rules is spurring a boom in burning wood pellets in European power plants. The result has been a surge in logging, particularly in the U.S. South, and new doubts about whether Europe can meet its commitments under the Paris accord.
It was once one of Europe’s largest coal-burning power stations. Now, after replacing coal in its boilers with wood pellets shipped from the U.S. South, the Drax Power Station in Britain claims to be the largest carbon-saving project in Europe. About 23 million tons of carbon dioxide goes up its stacks each year. But because new trees will be planted in the cut forests, the company says the Drax plant is carbon-neutral.
There is one problem. Ecologists say that the claims of carbon neutrality, which are accepted by the European Union and the British government, do not stand up to scrutiny. The forests of North Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi — as well as those in Europe — are being destroyed to sustain a European fantasy about renewable energy. And with many power plants in Europe and elsewhere starting to replace coal with wood, the question of who is right is becoming ever more important.
Since 2009, the 28 nations of the European Union have embarked on a dramatic switch to generating power from renewable energy. While most of the good-news headlines have been about the rise of wind and solar, most of the new “green” power has actually come from burning wood in converted coal power stations.
Wood burning is booming from Britain to Romania. Much of the timber is sourced locally, which is raising serious concerns among European environmentalists about whether every tree cut down for burning is truly replaced by a new one. But Drax’s giant wood-burning boilers are fueled almost entirely by 6.5 million tons of wood pellets shipped annually across the Atlantic.
In September, some 200 scientists wrote to the EU insisting that “bioenergy [from forest biomass] is not carbon-neutral” and calling for tighter rules to protect forests and their carbon. Yet just a month later, EU ministers rubber-stamped the existing carbon accounting rules, reaffirming that the burning of wood pellets is renewable energy.
Under the terms of both the UN Paris climate agreement and Europe’s internal rules, carbon losses from forests supplying power stations should be declared as changes to the carbon storage capacity of forest landscapes. But such changes are seldom reported in national inventories. And there is no system either within the EU or at the UN for reporting actual changes in carbon stocks on land, so the carbon is not accounted for at either end — when trees are cut, or when the wood is burned.
Wood burning is turning into a major loophole in controlling carbon emissions. The U.S. could be the next country to take advantage. A federal spending bill that passed the House of Representatives earlier this year directed the Environmental Protection Agency to establish policies “that reflect the carbon neutrality of biomass” and to “encourage private investment throughout the forest biomass supply chain,” paving the way for a boom in American pellet burning. […]
Burning wood may be close to carbon neutral in some situations, such as where it is clear that cut trees are replaced with the same trees, one for one; but in others it can emit even more carbon than coal. The trouble is that regulators are ill-placed to tell the difference, which will only be clear decades after the presumed emissions have been tallied — or not — in national carbon inventories.
The one certainty is that if things do not go according to plan, Europe’s promises for meeting its Paris climate commitments will go up in smoke. And the U.S.’s own CO2 emissions could resume their upward path even quicker than President Donald Trump intends.
Europe’s forests have for centuries been cut for household fuel and, in the past century, for local heating plants. But what is happening now is on a very different scale. The change has been fueled by new technology that converts timber into wood pellets that have been heated to remove moisture and compressed, which makes long-distance transportation practical and economic.
Roughly half the cut wood in the EU is now being burned to generate electricity or for heating. And there is growing evidence that the logging is damaging forests and reducing their ability to store carbon.