International climate and conservation leaders demand end to burning trees for energy amid ongoing COP26 negotiations

Saturday November 06, 2021

Research shows devastating impact of logging, carbon dioxide emissions by replacing coal with forest biomass

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — While world leaders at COP26 are celebrating further commitments to move away from coal, environmental groups are sounding the alarm that replacing coal with burning forest biomass is increasing carbon emissions and destroying forest ecosystems. 

Watch a recording of today''s press conference here. Link to mapping analysis available here

Burning wood and other biomass currently accounts for around 40 percent of renewable energy production in the EU and UK. Burning biomass emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated than burning fossil fuels, and logging forests for fuel is degrading the forest carbon sink in Europe and in regions that supply wood pellets, including the U.S. southeast, British Columbia and a range of other provinces in Canada. Despite these facts, most countries still treat burning trees and other woody biomass as a “zero carbon” or “carbon neutral” form of renewable energy, making it eligible for lucrative subsidies. In the EU, biomass subsidies were €10.3 billion in 2018.

“It’s hard to imagine a faster way to destroy forests and damage the climate than to log and burn trees for renewable energy,” said Dr. Mary S. Booth, Director of Partnership for Policy Integrity. “Countries proudly announcing a move away from coal should immediately put a moratorium on burning forest biomass, lest they add to the destruction.”

On the supply side, producing biomass fuel has devastating impacts on forests. Canada is the world’s second largest exporter of wood pellets. Pellet plants in Canada are increasingly logging primary forests to meet growing demand for biomass fuel. A recent investigation of Pinnacle, the largest pellet producer in British Columbia, found the company’s yards overflowing with logs. Pinnacle is owned by Drax, the UK’s largest biomass power utility. A new mapping analysis released today has found that at least 1.9 million hectares of unprotected primary forests in British Columbia (equivalent in size to over 3 million soccer pitches), including about 560,000 hectares that overlap with critically endangered caribou habitat, lie within potential sourcing zones of pellet plants and are at risk of being logged to support export markets primarily in the UK, Japan, and the Netherlands.

“To survive climate catastrophe, we must move beyond burning,” said Maya Menezes, Senior Forest Campaigner at Stand.earth. “It is beyond absurd that the UK is spending billions to prop up through subsidies an industry decimating carbon sinks, polluting the atmosphere, and unable even to turn a profit. Forest biomass is nothing more than a new fossil fuel in a trench coat.”

Scientists have found that planned growth of biomass energy would require a doubling in the commercial harvest of the world’s forests. Forests in Europe, including in Latvia and Estonia, continue to be logged to supply biomass to top burning countries like the UK.

“Since the launch of the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive in 2009, the logging pressure on our forests has increased significantly, resulting in us burning 50 percent of all our wood resources for energy purposes,” said Zoltan Kun, Research Fellow at Griffiths University. “This contributes to the dire biodiversity status of our forests in Europe and overseas as well. According to the European Environmental Agency’s latest report on protected areas in the EU, only 14 percent of our protected forests are in favourable conservation status. This figure is only 2 percent in our boreal forest region. We must simply decrease logging pressure on our forests in order to turn them into resilient ecosystems that help tackle the intertwined biodiversity and climate crises.”

Burning forests for biomass energy contradicts new agreements and policy announcements on both forest protection and a transition away from high-carbon power generation. Last week, the UK led a push for an international agreement to end deforestation and protect global forests, which was signed by over 100 countries including Canada, the US, Estonia and Latvia. However, because industrial logging is not considered to be “deforestation,” the agreement is unlikely to slow forest destruction from biomass logging. 

“Awareness of the problems caused by highly subsidised forest bioenergy burning is spreading beyond the environmental sector. Consumers, taxpayers, even investors also have cause for concern — just two weeks ago, Drax Corporation was removed from the Dow S&P Clean Energy Index because of its high emissions,” said Toby Aykroyd, Director of Wild Europe. “There is however a clear alternative strategy for addressing climate change: reallocating subsidies to renewable energy sources, protection and restoration of carbon absorbent ecosystems, and a range of emission suppressing enterprises. We need to make common cause in pursuing this route.”

Our organizations are collectively calling for an end to the expansion of forest biomass and a wind down in existing biomass infrastructure. Countries must reallocate the tens of billions in subsidies awarded to biomass to instead protect and restore forests, and support truly clean, renewable energy.

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Media contacts: 

Maya Menezes, Senior Forests Campaigner, Stand.earth, mayam@stand.earth, +1 647 832 3963 (Glasgow Time)

Ziona Eyob, Media Director - Canada, Stand.earth, canmedia@stand.earth, +1 604 757 7279 (Pacific Time)