What’s in a wood pellet?
Thursday April 23, 2020

A double whammy for the climate

Like many people, wood pellets are not a topic I expected to cover when talking about forests and the climate. I’ve always associated these small pellets with stoves for home heating or, in the case of my first volunteer position at a local animal shelter, with kitty litter.

As it turns out, wood pellets are part of a broader industry push to use forests for fuel. The results are devastating for forests and biodiversity, as well as our ability to avoid climate catastrophe.

Wood pellets can be made from a variety of wood fibre inputs: everything from sawdust to trees. Large materials like trees are ground up to be small enough to process. The fibres are dried out and packaged neatly into small pellets, which can then be shipped in bulk to market.

So what’s the issue? Well, frankly, it’s preposterous that trees are being converted into wood pellets. And in British Columbia, no less, we’re seeing huge cedars and trees from globally rare, intact forest being trucked into pellet plants.

In British Columbia, the majority of our wood pellets are exported instead of being used domestically. That’s because demand from key countries, namely the U.K. and Japan, is soaring.

Saving Canadian forests

Once they reach their destination, wood pellets are burned in power plants (in a similar way that you would burn coal to generate electricity, for instance) and companies get to slap a renewable energy label on the process, because in theory, the trees will eventually grow back and continue to sequester carbon. That seems to be the theory anyway, but in practice, it’s a different story.

Burning wood pellets is more polluting at the stack than coal when it comes to climate-warming carbon dioxide. To make matters worse, that doesn’t even begin to cover the damage caused from logging vital forests.

As we well know in BC, old-growth and primary forests are irreplaceable. It will take lifetimes, hundreds of years even, before carbon-rich rainforests will recover the majority of the carbon they store before industrial logging.

We need to recognize these forests for the value they carry beyond timber values. Protecting and expanding forests is the easiest way to fight climate change. Intact forests are home to endangered wildlife, and help protect our communities from flood, fire, and drought. Wood pellets are the last place we should be turning to when we consider what to do (or not) with forests.