Biomass Impacts in the Southeastern U.S.

– by Matt Williams, April 2, 2016, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

CYPRESS-Clearcut

Photo: PRI.org

The dogwood trees are in bloom at this time of year in North Carolina. Tiny white flowers single them out from the other foliage that lines the interstates. And turkey vultures are ubiquitous, circling above them in flocks of three or four, tilting as they glide on the hot air.

With other European NGO colleagues I’m visiting my friends from the Dogwood Alliance, one of the American NGOs we work with on bioenergy. This is the first of a few blogs I’ll try to post during the course of my trip.

As we’ve driven past strip malls, diners and wetland forests filled with cypress trees I’ve been spotting birds like great blue heron and rough-winged swallow as well as stunning butterflies suck as the tiger swallowtail.

The southeastern USA is the source every year for millions of tonnes of wood pellets that are shipped to Europe, mostly the UK, to be burned in power stations.

We’ve come here to see the forests being affected and to speak to decision makers. Our aim is to convince them both that the flow of wood pellets from the US to Europe needs to stop and that the US itself shouldn’t head down the path of burning wood at a massive scale to generate heat and power.

The wood pellet industry in the US is taking trees out of beautiful native bottomland and wetland forests that are full of wildlife. There’s also an overwhelming body of scientific evidence showing that in many cases the use of trees from these kinds of forests can be even worse for the climate than coal. But, Governments in Europe conveniently choose to ignore this and presume that bioenergy is carbon neutral.

Yesterday we saw two of the pellet mills that process hundreds of thousands of tonnes of pellets every single year. The size of the stacks of logs was incredible. Many of these pellets could end up being burned in UK power stations such as Drax.

We also drove past areas that had been clear-cut – former natural forests where all the trees had been completely removed. Investigations by the Dogwood Alliance suggest that many of the trees from areas like this are ending up in the pellet mills here in the US and then in power stations on the other side of the Atlantic.

Our intervention comes at an important time for both the EU and the US. The EU is due to put forward proposals this year for how to make sure that bioenergy used from 2020 onwards helps the climate and doesn’t impact on wildlife. The evidence from the southeastern US suggests that far stronger measures are needed to rule out biomass that harms wildlife and can result in increases in emissions relative to fossil fuels.

And just yesterday here in the US an Environmental Protection Agency group of scientific experts rejected a report that called for bioenergy to be assumed to be carbon neutral.

The US, through Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan, is currently considering what role bioenergy might play in its energy system. Yesterday’s rejection of the presumption that bioenergy is carbon neutral is an important step. In many cases bioenergy can lead to significant carbon emissions and doesn’t contribute to reducing emissions, which we urgently need to do. The UK’s policy makers should follow this lead and throw out their current presumption that bioenergy is carbon neutral.

This isn’t to say that all biomass is bad. The RSPB has been trialling the use of grass produced from the management of its own nature reserves to use heat.

But the import of millions of tonnes of wood pellets for burning to generate electricity is environmentally unacceptable, and seeing it in person only makes that reality all the more clear.

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