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Cornus florida and the transatlantic forest bioenergy discourse

The theme of this year's International Day of Forests (IDF) held on March 21 was "Forests and Education". A timely theme as this week alone illustrates the discourse between advocates of biomass for energy, including forest-derived industrial-scale biomass such as wood pellets, and those that denounce it. Educational too when you delve into the Cornus florida biotope.

Pine forest regeneration at a cutover in south-central Sweden.

Pine forest regeneration at a cutover in south-central Sweden.

Earlier this week a new 28-minute “documentary” film called “BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?” aired to coincide with the International Biomass Conference & Expo (IBCE) that took place in Savannah, Georgia (GA) in the United States (US).

According to the filmmakers Marlboro Films, LLC it is “a documentary about the burning of wood at an industrial scale for energy” and that it “tells the little-known story of the accelerating destruction of our forests for fuel, and probes the policy loopholes, huge subsidies, and blatant greenwashing of the burgeoning biomass power industry.”

Funding fueling fundamental biases?

Well, it told a well-rehearsed and familiar biased anti-biomass narrative that was clearcut from context and burned of balance. One of the few biomass advocates directly interviewed in the movie, the US Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA), provides a comprehensive breakdown of why the movie falls short.

It takes ≈20 minutes for the truck driver to unload a full load into the crusher. The crushed material is conveyed to storage.

It takes ≈20 minutes for the truck driver to unload a full load into the crusher. The crushed material is conveyed to storage.

What does seem obvious is that the filmmakers had decided from the onset that the US wood pellet industry are akin to Sauron’s orches, devouring whole trees as fuel for insatiable biomass power plants in Europe. By phrasing the film title as a question meant not having to actually prove the case – an opinion piece rather than a serious all-sides of the story documentary.

According to the acknowledgments, the majority of funding for the technically well-produced piece came from Ceres Trust, an organisation that has a grant area dedicated to the “protection of our forests from genetic engineering and use as biofuels.”

Ceres Trust is, of course, free and entitled to fund whatever it wants and with the movie, it got a 4 in 1 deal since three of its grantee partners; Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), Dogwood Alliance and Biofuelwatch, all well-known biomass detractors on both sides of the Atlantic, also featured in the film.

Woodchips being combusted inside an industrial biomass boiler.

Woodchips being combusted inside an industrial biomass boiler.

No doubt the film is part of the arsenal to be used in the recently filed lawsuit against the EU in which plaintiffs from six countries including the United States (US) are charging that the EU’s 2018 Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) will “devastate forests and increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by promoting burning forest wood as renewable and carbon neutral.”

Dr Mary S Booth, director of the US-based PFPI and lead science advisor on the case says that the suit is “necessary because the policy process, which should have protected people, ecosystems, and the climate, has failed.”

PFPI, an organisation that says it “uses science, legal action, and strategic communications to promote sound energy policy” was apparently inspired by the People’s Climate Case that it assembled an international team of partners, including the Center for Climate Integrity, FERN, and the law firm Leigh Day, and helped coordinate the expert witnesses and plaintiffs in the legal case though PFPI declined to be a plaintiff.

The significance of source differentiation

According to the lawsuit and alluded to in the film, EU’s REDII is apparently driving forest bioenergy demand that in turn is causing a diversity of present harms including increased carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Though not immediately apparent in a joint article that appeared March 20 in Euractiv, Dr Booth and Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a well-renowned climate scientist at the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium and former vice-chair of the IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2008-2015) both are of the view that the atmosphere is source agnostic.

The Tekniskaverken biomass-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant in Katrineholm, Sweden.

The Tekniskaverken biomass-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant in Katrineholm, Sweden.

In other words, CO2 emitted to the atmosphere has the same warming effect irrespective of its source. Therefore burning biomass for energy purposes is simply a bad idea especially given that “burning wood for energy emits more greenhouse gases per unit energy than burning fossil fuels.”

As pointed out by USIPA in its response to the film, while correct, that it makes no difference to the atmosphere, it makes a significant difference to any biological lifeform on the planet that respires – media discussions following research on bovine belching and flatulence or enteric fermentation in livestock a case in point.

By extension, not differentiating CO2 or other GHG sources could be dogmatically hard-drawn to mean a cessation of all forms of combustion that lead to the formation of gaseous CO2 and/or other greenhouse gases. At worst, to excuse forms of eco-extremism and justify acts of eco-terrorism, which thankfully thus far are confined to the imagination of book writers and filmmakers.

Cow 5469 peers out of her shed at Wapnö dairy farm in Sweden, probably wondering what the fuss is about..

Cow 5469 peers out of her shed at Wapnö dairy farm in Sweden, probably wondering what the fuss is about. The manure based biogas energy system together with an innovative heat-driven absorption refrigeration process supplies the heat, power and cooling needs for Wapnö.

Yet as explained by the International Energy Agency (IEA), even the IPCC distinguishes between the slow domain of the carbon cycle, where turnover times exceed 10 000 years, and the fast domain – the atmosphere, ocean, vegetation, and soil. Vegetation and soil carbon have turnover times in the magnitude of 1– 100 and 10– 500 years, respectively.

Fossil fuels such as coal, lignite, oil and natural gas transfer carbon from the slow domain to the fast domain, while bioenergy systems operate within the fast domain. This carbon transfer, from slow to fast in IPCC terms or from fossil-geological to biogenic, is what is behind the anthropogenic CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere not the increased use of forest biomass.

Other related issues such as the concept of carbon debt, landscape versus stand, smokestack versus lifecycle emissions have been discussed and explained in other reports.

Global carbon dioxide flux, expressed in billion tonnes per annum, highlighting the variable interaction between emission sources and sinks (illustration courtesy Global Carbon Project 2013).

Global carbon dioxide flux, expressed in billion tonnes per annum, highlighting the variable interaction between emission sources and sinks (illustration courtesy Global Carbon Project 2013).

Rule of (US) forest law

The second issue has to do with forest law and its implementation. The case being put forward in the lawsuit and insinuated by the movie is that forest bioenergy is responsible for a “diversity of present harms” – from increased traffic at a biomass power plant in France, desecration of ancient sacred (forest) sites in Estonia, old forest and illegal logging in Romania and Slovakia, peat bog destruction in Ireland and the destruction of native hardwood forests for wood pellet manufacturing in the US south.

Roundwood at a Danish biomass-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant awaiting chipping into fuel.

Roundwood at a Danish biomass-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant awaiting chipping into fuel.

Leaving aside the legality issues in Europe with a sweeping acknowledgment that corruption, illegal logging, and related controversies in European forests make the headlines here too. Nonetheless, as the world’s largest pellet producer and operating in the US, Enviva has been singled out by the moviemakers and the NGO trójka as the destroyer of forests.

In both the movie and lawsuit, the US plaintiff, a North Carolina forest owner, who declined offers to log, laments the decision to log by his neighbours, on behalf of his neighbours. One can only assume that as dramatic as the clandestine “track and trace” of logs to an Enviva pellet plant was portrayed in the film, the logged site itself was in fact perfectly legal, the landowners were entitled to harvest and that the harvested sites meet applicable federal and local regulations – the filmmakers would have been quick point out otherwise.

Yet there is no discussion with the loggers, wood purchasers or the actual forest owners themselves, why they decided to log, end-use of the logs or post-harvest land-use plan.

A cut-to-length harvester bucking a log directly after felling the tree in the forest.

A cut-to-length harvester bucking a log directly after felling the tree in the forest.

The latter is of significance and the movie would have benefitted from such a discussion – is there a risk of land conversion to other, for the landowner more profitable uses such as a shopping mall with a parking lot (ie urbanisation)? Or does the site permit the planting of other crops (ie conversion to agriculture) or to other more profitable tree species – southern yellow pine for instance or do forest and/or other laws stipulate something else? Finally, it’s unclear if it is logging for forest bioenergy, as opposed to logging for pulpwood or sawlogs, is responsible for this litany of ills.

Collaboration a better way forward

Despite this lack of balance, context, and clarity, it is likely that the logging itself along with post-harvest land-use change scenarios that are causes of concern for Dogwood Alliance as expressed in its “forests are not fuel” campaign. Through its recently launched Wetland Forest Initiative (WFI) the NGO works with a diverse array of communities, tribes, partner organizations, agencies, and landowner associations to conserve, restore, and improve Southern wetland forests that span an estimated 35 million acres across fourteen states.

As Dogwood Alliance point out, a majority of US south wetland forests have been lost due to wood harvesting as well as agricultural and development conversion in the last 300 years and the NGO seeks to strengthen communities through “science-based actions, diverse partnerships, and citizen and landowner engagement.”

Unfortunately, it seems that confrontation instead of collaboration is the preferred modus operandi for Dogwood Alliance, which in part is perhaps due to its funders and partners. Given both the climate and conservation urgency, it is a shame that lessons learned by the NGO from “savvy negotiation” skills employed in its campaign against its other perceived enemy, the US paper industry, haven’t been put to better use.

Why not skip a rehashed confrontation stage and fast-track to the collaboration part with Enviva and other wood pellet majors? Indeed why not go all out and work with trade associations such as the American Forest & Paper Association (AFPA), American Wood Council (AWC), National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO), National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), Southeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association (SLMA), US Industrial Pellets Association (USIPA) or forest management bodies such as Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) to the discussion table.

A pile of logging residues at roadside, covered with a paper wrap to aid air drying, will be used for energy at a local biomass-fired heat plant and/or combined heat and power (CHP) plant.

A fairly common sight in Sweden – a pile of logging residues at roadside, covered with a paper wrap to aid air drying, that will be used for energy at a local biomass-fired heat plant and/or combined heat and power (CHP) plant. Not all harvesting site ecologies or economies permit the removal of logging residues and at least 20 percent is to be left on site.

And while providing unsolicited advice, a tip to the filmmakers – take an extended trip to the Nordics to explore the impact of (forest) biomass energy on forest ecologies, energy industry practices, public health, climate and energy policies, and the economy. While Cornus florida (flowering dogwood – native to Eastern North America and state tree of North Carolina) may be absent from the Nordic landscape, there are other bones of contention such as reindeer grazing, stump harvesting or sustainable harvesting levels.

With Finland and Sweden together accounting for almost 30 percent of EU’s wooded land area, both have the EU’s highest renewable energy shares and both have export-dependent bioeconomies where forest industries top sustainability and workplace rankings, it is little wonder the Nordics are probably the happiest countries in the world.,

But take it for what it is  – a forest fueled and funded Viking manifesto bias.

About International Day of Forests

In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 21 the International Day of Forests. The Day celebrates and raises awareness of the importance of all types of forests. On each International Day of Forests, countries are encouraged to undertake local, national and international efforts to organize activities involving forests and trees, such as tree planting campaigns.

The theme for each International Day of Forests is chosen by the Collaborative Partnership on Forests. The theme for 2019 is Forests and Education.

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