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The Environmental Scam of the Century
Preventing climate change by chopping down trees
Every day, 50 acres’ worth of forest is clear-cut for just one company, Enviva. That’s thousands of trees being cut down every day. Those trees are taken to one of Enviva’s 10 processing plants in the Southeastern United States. The wood from those trees is dried out and then ground into dust. The dust is then heated and compressed together into tiny wood pellets, roughly the size of a bullet. As these plants are in the Southeast, a majority of the electricity used to create the wood pellets comes from either coal or natural gas. Then the pellets are taken by truck or train to the nearest port. These trucks and trains run on diesel fuel. At port the wood pellets are loaded on a ship and taken across the ocean on cargo ships. These cargo ships are powered by heavy fuel oil, a substance so filthy it is banned on land and it’s only used on the open ocean, far away from people. The ships travel across the Atlantic to Europe, mainly to the United Kingdom. The fuel pellets are taken from the ships to power plants on trucks and trains that are again powered by diesel fuel. At the power plant the wood pellets are burned in order to generate electricity. That electricity is then duly credited as renewable energy.
I will pause to let the reader compute.
That’s right. If you cut down trees, press them into pellets, ship them across the planet, and burn them to generate electricity, the British will count this as renewable energy. In fact, all of Europe would. This fuel source is called biomass, and through a deceitful accounting rule it allows countries a quick and relatively cheap way to meet their renewable energy targets. Biomass is the key component in the larger category of biofuels, which is now the second leading source of renewable energy in the United Kingdom, and it is responsible for 12.9% of all electricity generated in the country.
Cutting down and burning trees is renewable? This seems impossible. Wood is a terribly inefficient way to generate energy. There’s a reason people switched from wood to coal during the industrial revolution; the latter gets you more bang for the buck. Wood generates 50% more CO2 than coal and 200% more than natural gas. Coal is terrible, but at least when coal is mined the Earth doesn’t lose a carbon sink.
Why is burning trees considered renewable energy? Because more trees can always be replanted. That’s it. This is the magical accounting rule that means cutting down trees and burning them counts for renewable energy. You can always just replant the trees! So if 1,000 trees are cut down, just plant 1,000 seeds and the electricity generated from the first 1,000 is renewable.
There are a host of obvious problems with this. First, not every tree is equal. Cutting down old-growth forest and replacing it with a tree plantation is not an equal switch. As a character in Richard Powers’ marvelous book The Overstory says, “You can replace forests with plantations. You can also arrange Beethoven’s Ninth for solo kazoo.” Replacing a biodiverse natural environment with endless rows of the same tree may be equal from a carbon perspective, but it still decimates the ecological value of the area.
Then there’s the question of who is planting these trees and when. A 2019 investigation found that carbon offsets are not as helpful as they claim. It’s easy for a company to accept millions of dollars to plant thousands of trees in Brazil; who’s going to check? But even if the trees are planted as planned, that doesn’t mean the new trees cancel out the old trees immediately. Far from it. It will be decades before any sapling equals the amount of carbon that was just cut down and burned up. According to this whacky accounting, a bird in the bush is worth just as much as a bird in the hand and chickens can be counted before they hatch.
To be fair, not all biomass comes from old-growth forest. Some comes from existing tree plantations. Other comes from sawmill by-products that would otherwise go to waste. The problem is that in even the best case the burning of solid carbon sends it into the atmosphere as CO2, further contributing to climate change. And most biomass is not coming from paper mills.
An honest accounting system would at the very least put all biomass into the ledger as a current debit that can be redeemed as a credit in several decades. To claim that burning a tree today is as renewable as generating electricity through wind is laughable. There’s a reason 10 carrots are worth more than 10 carrots seeds. The latter might become 10 carrots eventually, but they also might not. Yes, wind turbine blades require natural resources (often balsa wood) as well. Solar panels require rare earth minerals. But they don’t rely on the honesty of a questionable carbon offsetting industry and decades to balance the ledger.
Say no to biomass. Call it what it is - burning trees for electricity. Recognize that this is a disgraceful attempt at Greenwashing that would make even a Volkswagen executive blush. Thankfully, environmental groups are waking up to this reality. Biomass is made possible by the destruction of millions of trees. At the very best, some of the energy used to produce the resulting electricity will be taken back out of the atmosphere decades later. It isn’t low carbon. it isn’t sustainable. And if you think it is renewable, I have some magic seeds to sell you.
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