“Here’s a multibillion-dollar question that could help determine the fate of the global climate: If a tree falls in a forest—and then it’s driven to a mill, where it’s chopped and chipped and compressed into wood pellets, which are then driven to a port and shipped across the ocean to be burned for electricity in European power plants—does it warm the planet?
Most scientists and environmentalists say yes: By definition, clear-cutting trees and combusting their carbon emits greenhouse gases that heat up the earth. But policymakers in the U.S. Congress and governments around the world have declared that no, burning wood for power isn’t a climate threat—it’s actually a green climate solution. In Europe, “biomass power,” as it’s technically called, is now counted and subsidized as zero-emissions renewable energy. As a result, European utilities now import tons of wood from U.S. forests every year—and Europe’s supposedly eco-friendly economy now generates more energy from burning wood than from wind and solar combined.”
“Nevertheless, the global transition away from fossil fuels has sparked a boom in the U.S. wood-pellet industry, which has built 23 mills throughout the South over the past decade, and is relentlessly trying to brand itself as a 21st-century green energy business. Its basic argument is that the carbon released while trees are burning shouldn’t count because it’s eventually offset by the carbon absorbed while other trees are growing. That is also currently the official position of the U.S. government, along with many other governments around the world.”
“critics of the industry have suggested an alternative climate strategy: Let trees grow and absorb carbon, then don’t burn them. Deforestation is a major driver of climate change, and the United Nations climate panel has warned that the world needs to end it worldwide to meet the ambitious Paris emissions targets for 2050.”
“European experience shows that general policies to promote renewables can spark a massive shift to wood-burning if biomass isn’t specifically excluded.”
“Enviva’s product would not exist without loggers who clear-cut forests into barren fields with motorized “feller-bunchers,” but the company tries to emphasize that its business is about growing trees as well as killing trees. Enviva requires the landowners who supply its wood to promise to replant their forests, and it uses GPS technology to track and trace every harvest to see if they comply. The company has also committed to help protect 35,000 acres of threatened bottomland hardwood forests and restore 5,000 acres of natural longleaf pine.”
“Jenkins wants the public to see the big picture: Southern forests are growing overall, with more trees being planted than cut, and Enviva’s demand for wood helps encourage landowners to keep their forests as forests. The Southeastern U.S. produces one-sixth of the world’s timber, and less than 4 percent of that harvest ends up as pellets.
“one thing both sides agree on is that it matters what kind of wood ends up in the pellet mills, and what would have happened to that wood otherwise. Policymakers and academics have made all kinds of theoretical assumptions, but it’s not hard to find the reality on the ground.”
“In the decade since Enviva started manufacturing pellets, the Dogwood Alliance has repeatedly exposed gaps between the company’s sustainability rhetoric and its actions. In 2018, for example, a Dutch TV station working with Dogwood followed some logs from another cypress swamp near the Virginia border back to Enviva’s mill. Smith and I returned to the scene three years later, and while the deforested high ground around the swamp had been recolonized by a thick tangle of grasses, bushes and scrub oak, there wasn’t much growing back in the low-lying wetlands, just some sad-looking stumps poking out of the murky water. Smith warns that if governments keep subsidizing the conversion of trees into energy, enormous swaths of environmentally valuable forests around the world will end up looking like that.
Enviva officials say they no longer accept any cypress wood at their mills, or for that matter any other wood harvested from ecologically sensitive areas. They say they now source only 3 percent of their wood from the increasingly rare bottomland hardwood forests that are such culturally resonant symbols of the South—and only from “non-sensitive” ones. But Jenkins admits the company made some questionable sourcing decisions in the past.”
“what’s clear from talking to people in North Carolina, and from a few hours standing outside two Enviva mills watching logging trucks come and go, is that much of the wood that gets pelletized isn’t unmerchantable waste wood. It’s pulpwood—whole pine and hardwood trees as well as wood chips that could otherwise be sold to paper mills. It’s not thick or unblemished enough to turn into telephone poles, houses or high-quality furniture, but much of it is fine for Amazon boxes, toilet paper and the fluff inside diapers; one member of Enviva’s sustainability team described it as Walmart wood rather than Gucci wood. I later spent an hour outside a nearby paper mill watching what kind of wood arrived there, and the trucks were bringing in the same kind of logs they brought to Enviva.
That means Enviva isn’t just cleaning up around the edges of the logging industry—it’s increasing demand for wood in the South. And that means additional trees would need to be logged to feed the paper mills that are losing trees to Enviva; the increased demand for pulpwood will require an increased supply of pulpwood. Even if new trees are planted in their place, many studies suggest they will take decades, and in some cases centuries, to absorb enough carbon to “pay back” the carbon debt from burning the older trees. That’s a problem, because scientists don’t believe the world can wait decades, much less centuries, to cut emissions.”
“When you have big, powerful oil and gas firms that are also backing a carbon tax, that should be a signal that the ideal conditions under which such a policy could function will likely not materialize, because these interests are very powerful, and they’re so entrenched in the governments that are trying to regulate them.”
“If you try to isolate how much emissions fell because of the EU’s Emissions Trading System, estimates have only placed it at around one to three percent per year, which is not a lot.”
“China released a draft summary of its 14th Five-Year Plan, the all-important document that not only guides the country’s economic development but also has huge consequences for global carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.
The new plan’s 2025 emissions goals reflect an ongoing contradiction between China’s short-term and long-term climate goals.
In the long run, China has expressed a strong commitment to climate action. President Xi Jinping surprised the world last September when he announced that China would aim to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Climate scientists have called for countries to hit that goal by 2050, but it was still a significant step forward for China — the first time the country made any formal commitment to zeroing out its emissions.
And yet, even as Xi made that announcement, CO2 emissions in China were soaring. Like the rest of the world, the pandemic had initially caused economic activity to plummet in China in early 2020. But after swiftly bringing the pandemic under control within its borders, the Chinese government funneled stimulus dollars into the heavily polluting construction and manufacturing sectors, stoking steel and cement production. As a result, China’s emissions rose an estimated 1.5 percent in 2020, even accounting for the initial drop.”
“What does this mean for global climate goals? According to a joint study published by the Asia Society Policy Institute and Climate Analytics in November, China needs to peak its emissions as soon as possible, and certainly by 2025, to be in line with the Paris agreement. Currently, China has only committed to peaking its emissions before 2030.
The other main climate target from the 14th Five-Year Plan is slightly more hopeful. China has set a slightly bolder renewable energy goal: 20 percent of its energy should come from non-fossil sources by 2025. This is a slight acceleration over the non-fossil energy buildout in the last five-year plan period, during which the share rose from 12.3 to 15.9 percent.
However, once again, it doesn’t fully align with China’s long-term climate goals and the Paris agreement. According to analysis from CREA, China needs to get 25 percent of its energy from non-fossil sources by 2025 to be on a straight path to meeting its 2060 goal.
So on the whole, these targets suggest modest progress from the world’s top emitter in the years to come. It is worth noting, though, that historically, environmental goals in five-year plans have been set to be overachieved. All of the climate targets in the 13th Five-Year Plan were surpassed.”
“The biggest question remains whether China will reverse its coal consumption, which increased slightly last year even during the pandemic. Environmentalists grew increasingly concerned as China built 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plant capacity in 2020 alone — three-quarters of new coal construction globally.
What happens internationally may also play a role in shaping China’s emissions. The Biden administration has pledged to reassert US global leadership on climate change and is planning to host a global climate summit on Earth Day in April. In the lead-up, the administration has said it will release a new, more ambitious 2030 target for the US.
That could potentially free up China to also increase its 2030 goals.”
“The world’s wealthy need cuts of over 90 percent of their carbon emissions, to get to their carbon fair share. The top-skew is so huge that the world’s richest 1 percent cause double the carbon burden of the poorest 50 percent combined (that’s 3.5 billion people).
Most “middle class” Americans are in the global top 1 or 10 percent.”
“So what the hell can anyone do? The main answer for the majority of folks reading this is to cut your personal consumption, and to press for political and systemic changes to get off the “hedonic treadmill,” at least until we’ve stabilized. The “hedonic treadmill” refers to the effect that increases in consumption often result in no permanent gain in happiness.
We’ve all felt negligible or fleeting satisfaction from consumption, but sadly the carbon impacts are far from fleeting — they will last centuries. It’s critical to avoid mindless overconsumption. Many carbon footprint calculators are available to help you figure out your own carbon impact.”
“Over the past three decades, 30 states — red and blue alike — have passed laws requiring electric utilities to use more clean energy. Since 2015, 10 states have adopted 100 percent clean electricity standards, requiring the transition to fully 100 percent carbon-free power. And six more have committed to that goal. State laws are popping up so fast, it’s hard to keep track. Across the country, 170 cities have policies to get to 100 percent clean. As a result, more than one in three Americans already live in a place that’s committed to reaching 100 percent clean power.
We know this approach is technologically possible. Wind, solar, batteries, transmission lines, and other technologies can replace dirty fossil fuels. Google, one of the largest electricity consumers in the country, is aiming for 100 percent clean power, real-time at all its facilities by 2030.
With all this state and local leadership, it’s not surprising that this approach is popular with the public. In independent polls from both Data for Progress and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, run over the past few months, more than two-thirds of voters support the federal government moving the country to 100 percent clean power by 2035.
And once we implement this policy nationally, it should stay popular because clean energy saves customers money.”
“Many utilities continue to operate old, uneconomic coal plants. In just three years, these plants cost customers an additional $3.5 billion to keep open — and that’s before we add in all the extra hospital bills for folks breathing in their pollution day after day. Or the cost of destabilizing our climate. Replacing these dirty plants with clean power is not only good for our health; it’s also good for our wallets.”
“In our research for our report, we spent months talking with congressional offices, parliamentary experts, think tanks, climate advocates, and others, and have concluded that it is possible to pass a CES through the budget reconciliation process. In our report, we identify several ways a CES can fit with the Byrd Rule.”
“A prominent takeaway is the massive amount of land it would take to reimagine energy production and distribution nationally, including figuring out where to site a multitude of new solar arrays and wind turbines and constructing thousands of miles of transmission lines. “The current power grid took 150 years to build,” one of the study researchers said. “Now, to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, we have to build that amount of transmission again in the next 15 years and then build that much more again in the 15 years after that. It’s a huge amount of change.””
Global Climate Agreements: Successes and Failures Lindsay Maizland. 1 25 2021. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/paris-global-climate-change-agreements The Climate Change Performance Index 2021 Jan Burck et al. 2021. New Climate Institute. The Climate Change Performance IndexResults 2016 Jan Burck et al. 2016. GermanWatch.
“2020 was one of the two warmest years on record, tied only with 2016.
According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, in 2020, average temperatures globally were 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.25 degrees Celsius) warmer than preindustrial levels — the point at which scientists agree that human activity, and particularly the burning of fossil fuels, began to accelerate global warming.
In nearly every way, 2020 was a record year for climate-related disasters.
The impacts of the record heat have been felt both around the globe and in the United States. Historic wildfires burned in California, Colorado, Australia, and the Amazonian rainforest. The Atlantic hurricane season produced a record 30 named storms.
Swarms of crop-destroying locusts invaded East Africa, causing devastation to a region already struggling with food insecurity. The Arctic, the area that is currently warming faster than any other place on the planet, saw record declines in ice cover as well as records for how late in the year the ice actually froze.
Even more troubling, 2020’s high temperatures occurred despite the absence of an El Niño event, which typically has the effect of warming the globe; 2016, the other warmest year on record, had an El Niño.”