No, slashing and burning forests for electricity isn’t going to save us from global warming

The European Union claims renewable energy is outpacing fossil fuels and making huge gains on their carbon footprint, but they’re really just cutting down forests and burning the wood for electricity, a source dirtier than coal.  Oh, and the forests are located in poor regions in the United States.  This is a government climate scheme in action.

While the news is awash with the latest climate crisis, from heat waves in the west that couldn’t have occurred without global warming to the latest, supposedly record breaking year for global temperatures, it’s always good to consider what solutions the establishment actually has planned to resolve the purportedly looming catastrophe.  What inspired ideas are the experts cooking up to save us all?  What breakthrough technologies can we expect as a result of the billions in subsidies fueling the green energy industry?  What revolutionary new carbon neutral energy source is just another couple of billion away from coming to fruition?

In the European Union at least, one of those breakthrough, revolutionary technologies is apparently burning wood instead of coal for electricity, after slashing down a perfectly good forest in the southeastern United States.  Yes, we’re going to save the planet for the future by resorting to a primitive energy source of the distant past.  Nothing says progress like a wood-burning stove, truly the stuff of science fiction.  This is one idea so colossally stupid and counterproductive it’s almost impossible to imagine it was proposed, implemented, and funded, and yet the EU considers the scheme a major achievement when reporting their emissions and compliance with the Paris Climate Accords.

The story starts even before that, way back in 2009 when the European Union first began pledging to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by switching from fossil fuels to “renewable” sources of energy. Back then the Kyoto Protocols were considered the gold standard for combating global warming.  The Renewable Energy Directive issued by the EU to comply with these protocols stated that “The control of European energy consumption and the increased use of energy from renewable sources, together with energy savings and increased energy efficiency, constitute important parts of the package of measures needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions…Those factors also have an important part to play in promoting the security of energy supply, promoting technological development and innovation and providing opportunities for employment and regional development, especially in rural and isolated areas.”

To achieve these goals, the Directive included a provision for renewable energy including biomass, “They should establish a national renewable energy action plan including information on sectoral targets, while having in mind that there are different uses of biomass and therefore it is essential to mobilise new biomass resources.”  Biomass, as defined by the EU included timber, “In order to exploit the full potential of biomass, the Community and the Member States should promote greater mobilisation of existing timber reserves and the development of new forestry systems.”  Further, biomass was considered a renewable energy resource, “‘energy from renewable sources’ means energy from renewable non-fossil sources, namely wind, solar, aerothermal, geothermal, hydrothermal and ocean energy, hydropower, biomass, landfill gas, sewage treatment plant gas and biogases.”  Essentially, biomass was considered equal to wind and solar power.

Twelve years later, the EU is now celebrating that renewable energy sources are used more frequently than fossil fuels on the continent.  The only problem is that a significant portion of this renewable energy comes from biomass, burning wood pellets instead of coal, and the great majority of those wood pellets aren’t even produced in Europe.  Instead, the production is outsourced to the American southeast and the results aren’t pretty.  According to a report from CNN, “scientists and experts say it’s too early to celebrate, arguing that relying on biomass for energy has a punishing impact not only on the environment, but also on marginalized communities — perpetuating decades of environmental racism in predominantly Black communities like Northampton County [in North Carolina].”

Nor is burning wood any cleaner than burning coal, in fact it’s much worse.  In 2018, close to 800 scientists signed a letter to the European Parliament sharing their concerns.  We “strongly urge members of Parliament to amend the present directive to avoid expansive harm to the world’s forests and the acceleration of climate change. The flaw in the directive lies in provisions that would let countries, power plants and factories claim credit toward renewable energy targets for deliberately cutting down trees to burn them for energy. The solution should be to restrict the forest biomass eligible under the directive to residues and wastes.”  Another group of scientists sent a similar letter to President Joe Biden and other world leaders this year.

As William Moomaw, professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University, put it, “I can’t think of anything that harms nature more than cutting down trees and burning them.”  This is exactly what the EU did, however, and now they are bragging about how they’ve reduced their carbon footprint.  Incredibly, the Directive also included a provision that allowed countries to calculate carbon emissions for biomass based on where the trees are cut down, not where the pellets themselves are burned, meaning EU member states are claiming reductions in emissions while running the same exact power plants in an even less environmentally friendly way, and the United States is footing the carbon bill.

“It doesn’t change the physical reality,” said Tim Searchinger, senior research scholar at Princeton University. “A law designed to reduce emissions that in reality encourages an increase in emissions…has to be flawed.”  Bas Eikhout, a Dutch member of parliament believes they “were too naive,” and “The production of biomass has become an industrial process which means something has gone fundamentally wrong.  The professionalization of the biomass industry is a problem that needs attention.”

Of course, the biomass industry is now booming, just not in Europe.  In North Carolina, they are cutting down 164 acres of forest every day.  Leading companies such as Drax and Eniva are building new facilities and expanding existing ones to meet increased demand.  Eniva currently operates nine plants in the United States, the majority of which are located in underprivileged communities, many home to minority residents.  Once again, according to CNN, “all of Enviva’s plants are in census tracts that have lower median household incomes than their states, and eight of the nine — all except the one in southern Virginia — are in tracts with higher poverty rates than their states as a whole.”

The residents of these communities have had it with the plants.  “They just feel like they come in and do what they want to do,” said Andrea Macklin from Garysburg, North Carolina.  “All the noise and the dust and stuff, it was never like that, it’s always been quiet around here…that plant is on 24 hours a day. It don’t stop. Seven days a week.”  Kathy Claiborne lives on the other side of the Enviva plant in Northampton and she doesn’t even plan on sleeping at night anymore because 2:00 AM is apparently the witching hour for the plants.  Instead, she comes home and takes a nap, knowing she will be awakened in the middle of the night, every night.  There is also concern about the particulates being produced day in and day out.  Operation of the plants requires a special permit under the Clean Air Act, for “emitting tons of dangerous fine particles, or PM2.5, carbon monoxide and a number of what the Environmental Protection Agency calls ‘Hazardous Air Pollutants’ — including formaldehyde and methanol.”

Of course, Eniva itself claims the plants are all operating according to the prevailing regulations.  “All of our plants operate in compliance with their permits and federal and state prescribed emission legal standards under the permits, presenting no risk or issue to public health or environment,” they said in a statement, adding that a state air quality monitor close its facility found that particulate levels did not “present a health risk” to county residents.  They also claim to be on the forefront of fighting global warming, “When sourced responsibly wood-based biomass is recognized by the leading international organizations and scientists as aclimate friendly, renewable and carbon-neutral energy source,” they claimed.

You might be wondering how slashing forests is remotely renewable:  Simply because the trees grow back, at some point, meaning the carbon burned is made up for over 30 some odd years of a new tree growing.  As Eniva says, they ”will regenerate, either naturally or through planting.”  That’s it.  Burn a tree today, plant a tree tomorrow, and — presto — you have a magical renewable, carbon neutral energy source, at least according to the European Union.

An energy source so effective, it’s worth subsidizing, big time.  In fact, the European Union spends  somewhere around $7 billion a year on this.  According to the National Resources Defense Council, “European nations are wasting $7 billion a year on subsidies for the burning of wood for power or heat, a notoriously dirty source of energy that the European Union has allowed to be counted as clean energy.  The United Kingdom and Germany are the worst offenders, according to a landmark report by the Natural Resources Defense Council that offers the first full accounting of subsidies for so-called biomass energy in 15 EU member states.”

In 2017, Germany and the UK received over half the subsidies.  Austria spent the most per capita on biomass, followed by Belgium and the UK.  Of the total $7 billion, about $1 billion goes direct to wood pellet based “bioenergy” and, in the UK at least, more than half of the biomass was used to generate electricity by burning wood.  In addition, the direct $7 billion might be only a small portion of the total subsidies involved.  For example, Denmark also offered nearly a billion Euros in tax exemptions and credits.

I would be remiss to mention that all of this has occurred while many of these same nations were busy lecturing the United States for pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords.  They’re literally burning wood for fuel, a dirty, destructive practice that hadn’t been used in decades for overwhelmingly obvious reasons, wood stripped from American forests, located in poor communities, and they’re simultaneously bragging about their green credentials.  It is rare that I agree with the Natural Resources Defense Council, but this scheme is almost criminally insane.  No one in their right mind truly believes burning more wood is good for the environment in either the short or long term, and yet that is precisely what every player involved, from the EU scientists and bureaucrats, to the individual government of the member states, to the companies eager to vacuum up free money to launch an unprecedented slash and burn campaign.  Even worse, the EU has outsourced all of this to an already disadvantaged community on another continent.  They get to brag about their green energy while others suffer for it, like something straight out of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

CNN and other experts are calling this a “loophole” that can easily be closed.  They seem to believe the only problem with the scheme is that it allows forests to be cut down for the purpose of biomass energy, instead of using waste products from paper, timber, and other forestry industries.  It’s much worse than that, however.  It’s the law of unintended consequences in action.  I’m reasonably certain the authors of the original EU Directive didn’t intend it to apply this way, but back in the real world every single person involved had to know it was wrong and did it anyway — for the money, for the ability to say they were green, for the reduction in their carbon footprint, and who knows what else.

In my opinion, this is exactly what happens when the government and the experts institute sweeping new schemes designed to improve either our lives or the environment. Somebody always gets rich, someone always gets paid, and someone always pays the price.  In other words, there truly is no free lunch, whether it be a billionaire like Bill Gates with a carbon footprint larger than some small towns claiming to be carbon neutral, or a country reverting to primitive technology claiming massive benefits.  Think of this the next time some “too naïve” progressive claims they’re going to save the world through massive government action.

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