Cutting Down Forests for Wood Pellets Is Considered Green
Photo by: Shaiith
19 April 2022 – by Ashley Crowther
Is it justifiable to cut down forests to get and burn wood pellets as a green energy source?
Forests have always been places of awe. We associate them with words like wilderness and wildlife, and it’s easy to see why. Across the planet, forests are home to the largest number of plant and animal species on land. Yet, despite the wonder associated with forests, cutting them down has been equally a part of our human history.
Over the years, deforestation has wreaked havoc across the world. On every continent, logging destroys forests at unimaginable rates. Only recently have calls to end deforestation been amplified to a level of global importance. Even more so now, as forests are one of the largest natural carbon dioxide absorbers on the planet. For example, between 2001 and 2019, forests absorbed 7.6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 per year – 1.5 times more than the US emits annually.
Despite this, the EU, the US and several Asian countries continue to cut down forests, burn them and classify the energy produced as renewable. However, despite this being the antithesis of what is renewable and clean, it is precisely what’s happening – and it is being labelled as “carbon neutral” by the EU and others. The wood pellet industry is touting it, and the number of wood pellet mills is increasing.
The Reasons Behind Wood Pellets and Green Energy
The rationale behind labelling wood pellets as green energy comes from its efficient use of waste wood. For example, a sawmill producing furniture could use available wood scraps instead of fossil fuels to power its operations. Otherwise, the discarded scraps would decompose and release CO2 while the mill continued using fossil fuels.
However, this kind of reckoning has created a significant carbon accounting loophole, which is being used by governments and companies alike. As far back as 2012, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change published guidelines on wood pellets. The government encouraged utilities to convert coal-fired power plants to wood pellets or co-fire. This, they said, would help them meet renewable energy standards. Today, this practice continues, as wood pellets fall under green energy and are counted towards net-zero goals.
Today, the European Union (EU) sources almost 60% of its renewable energy from “biomass energy”. In other words, burning wood pellets.
The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2021 report has also given attention to wood pellets and broadly categorised them as “bioenergy”. “Bioenergy can offer dispatchable power and low emissions when using sustainable supplies in dedicated power plants, co‐fired with coal in solid form or natural gas as biogas,” stated the IEA’s report.
Europe’s seemingly insatiable appetite for wood pellets as green energy is appeased by forests in the US and Canada. However, this would not be possible without mammoth government subsidies. For example, in the UK, Drax, an energy utility and one of the largest wood pellet importers, has received billions in renewable energy subsidies. The company is now lobbying to extend these payments until 2027. As a result, if this were to go ahead, from 2012 to 2027, Drax would reportedly be in the running to accumulate around USD 13.5 billion in subsidies. Worryingly, it is not the only company reaping the rewards from labelling wood pellets as green energy.
Are Wood Pellets Carbon-neutral, or Do They Produce Carbon Emissions?
The renewable energy designation begs the question: what does the science say?
Drax CEO, Andy Koss, told Vox that burning wood for energy means 80% savings in carbon dioxide emissions compared to burning coal. He also claimed that the “carbon savings” would arrive after 25 to 30 years. Additionally, the industry suggested that the wood pellets for green energy come from tree branches and deadwood. By clearing deadwood, which slows forest growth, natural forests can grow back faster and absorb more CO2.
While industry pundits paint a rosy picture, there’s more to the story. A study in the journal Environmental Research Letters presented data showing the opposite. It suggested that wood’s combustion efficiency is much lower even though wood has approximately the same carbon intensity as coal. In other words, it takes more wood to produce the same amount of energy. The journal also highlighted that there are higher processing losses in wood’s supply chain. “Consequently, wood-fired power plants generate more CO2 per kWh than coal,” the authors concluded.
Moreover, contrary to industry comments, many of the wood pellets burnt for energy at wood pellet facilities come from hardwood forests – not from waste wood or plantations. Several investigations by the Natural Resources Defense Council between 2014 and 2019 showed that native hardwood and wetland forests in the US were cut down and assigned to Europe’s renewable energy portfolio.
Newly Planted Trees Are Not the Same as Old-growth Forests
However, even if newly planted trees replaced those that were cut down, the CO2 savings would be paltry compared to an intact ecosystem. For example, forests store most of their CO2 underground in the soil. A vast network of microbiotic life, including fungi, makes this possible. Take ectomycorrhizal fungi, for example. They partner with tree roots to help trees absorb CO2 and keep it trapped. However, they are susceptible to nitrogen-based fertilisers, which tree plantations profusely apply. The fertilisers break the connection between the fungi and tree roots, resulting in the release of trapped CO2.
The assumption that replacing an old-growth forest with new saplings replaces lost carbon emissions is fraught with error. The same goes for replacing an ecosystem with a single species. For example, the general payback time for the “carbon debt” incurred after a forest is clear-cut ranges between 44 to 104 years. This time frame does not fit a world attempting to avert a climate crisis in the next decade.
The risks of considering wood pellets as green energy could soar if demand in Asia begins to rise.
Where Demand for “Eco-friendly” Wood Pellets Is Growing
While the forests for energy trend began in Europe, Asia is now the green energy growth market for wood pellets. South Korea, Japan and Indonesia have included biomass into their renewable energy quotas while attempting to phase out fossil fuels. They have also followed precedents set by European countries that involve co-firing wood pellets with coal to attain carbon credits.
Japan and South Korea, so far, are the forerunners. For example, in 2021, South Korea imported 284,000 tonnes of wood to burn for energy. Meanwhile, Japan imported 1.8 million tonnes of wood to burn and count as renewable energy. Both countries’ wood pellet imports increased by 18 to 20% from 2020, with no signs of slowing.
Most of the wood for these two large Asian economies comes from Southeast Asia. Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are the leading exporters. Worryingly, Southeast Asia does not have history on its side regarding forest-related products.
In particular, Malaysia and Indonesia have a richly documented history of logging for forestry products and clearing land for monocultural agriculture. This regularly involved the dispossession of land from indigenous peoples. In Malaysia, for example, the Batek, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe, are the victims of decades-long logging, mining and oil palm operations. What’s left of Southeast Asia’s tropical rainforests, home to some of the most biodiverse parts of the planet, now face another threat: wood pellet production.
Wood Pellets as Green Energy Make Renewables Uncompetitive
The green energy policies of governments in South Korea and Japan are now enabling more logging in the already threatened Southeast Asian forests.
For instance, South Korea labels wood pellets as renewable energy. Large electricity utilities must contribute renewable energy to the Korean grid by law. They can do this by either making their operations greener or purchasing other renewables. However, as wood pellets are considered renewable, they are co-fired with coal in power plants. As per government policy, this is akin to adding renewable energy to the grid and contributing to net-zero goals. Further encouraging the practice are government subsidies, which support coal-fired power plants that convert their operations to wood pellet burning. Consequently, this has led to an ironic situation where wood pellets are now causing wind and solar to struggle to be competitive in South Korea.
Count Renewable Energy as Renewable
As history shows, fossil fuels have replaced wood burning. Today, actual renewables, like solar and wind, are replacing fossil fuels. These technologies are already proven, scalable and cheap. Diverting back to felling forests and burning them for energy does not abide by logic. This is especially relevant in countries where rampant corruption spurs on a logging industry that already receives little oversight or regulation.
Redefining what renewable energy includes will be a start. Wood pellets as green energy certainly don’t fit the mould. Additionally, supporting and subsidising real renewable energy solutions should hold priority over activities shrouded by greenwashing.
Wood Pellets Aren’t a Solution to Climate Change
However, there’s more to solving climate change than just adopting wind and solar energy. Keeping forests intact, protecting the wilderness and keeping stored carbon in the ground are vital. Forests are one of the few proven and scalable natural solutions that will curtail carbon emissions. Their entire ecosystems work round the clock without any intervention needed. They are simply too valuable, and we shouldn’t be burning them down to keep the lights on, as better solutions already exist. As Richard Powers stated in his 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Overstory: “What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”