Victor Hugo is credited with stating, “Nothing else in the world… not all the armies… is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” I wonder what Hugo would say today? The dawn of the Internet and social media made our modern society the founders of the information age and disinformation age. We’ve proliferated the exchange of ideas to a degree never before witnessed.

As citizens of the 21st century, we’re constantly informed and, as a result, more aware of the many existential threats that loom on the horizon like towering storm clouds. We find ourselves in the midst of a global polycrisis that includes climate breakdown, mass extinction, pandemics, mass migration, social upheaval and even war.

These are all major problems, some threatening to collapse the societies we’ve built. But from an optimistic point of view great challenges are resolved by great solutions. As a former engineer, I find Tesla’s electric vehicles to be a climate solution of the utmost elegance, built on a foundation of technical brilliance. It’s this kind of successful innovation that gives me hope.

There is no shortage of ideas fostering climate solutions, environmental movements, and new economic frameworks. For example, there is the guiding concept of nine planetary boundaries developed by former director of the University of Stockholm Resilience Center, Johan Rockstrom, and a group of 28 world-renowned scientists. These boundaries set the parameters for designing sustainable global systems.

Meanwhile, renegade economist Kate Raworth is championing her theory of Doughnut Economics, which integrates planetary boundaries with social and economic boundaries. It’s a compelling way to communicate how equity, justice, compassion and environmentalism should inform everything we do.

The concept of Indigenous Stewardship of natural ecosystems is slowly rising above the destructive resource management practices of colonialism. We are waking up to the value of Indigenous worldview and find ourselves at the crossroads foretold by the white buffalo prophecy:

“If these sacred white buffalo signs were recognized and heeded, a period of peace and harmony in the world would be restored before her return, when the Mother Earth would heal herself and men would live in harmony with each other, nature, and the natural world, but only if the right choices were chosen. If the wrong choices were made in these days, and man chose to ignore these signs, the Earth would be destroyed.”

At a time of accelerating technological advancement, we’re also becoming aware that our past and present decisions are destroying nature, placing us in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction event.  Our survival as a species will come down to making the right choices because we already have everything we need to restore the health of our planet, except commitment.

We may yet find our path to a beautiful future, but right now we’re living in the turmoil caused by resistance to change and a lack of consensus on the way forward. There are bad actors that want to prolong our self-destructive behavior around resource extraction, unrestrained consumerism and inequity.

Counterbalancing the dizzying array of world-changing positive ideas are equally powerful bad ideas that threaten to lock us into a civilization-scale death spiral. It is the goal of this new series to call out these bad ideas and inoculate our readers against them. We have to get on with implementing the policies and solutions that will save our climate, environment, economy and society. There is no time for efforts wasted on bad ideas, and yet we continue to fall into these traps, which are costly diversions from the path towards the world that we all deserve.

The first edition of our “Disarming the Disinformation” series asks readers to contemplate the sustainability of energy production from biomass.

Fisheye HDR view looking directly up in dense Canadian pine forest with sun glaring in clear blue sky as trees reach for the sky. Source: Getty Images.

Burning Our Future

In September of 2022, Greta Thunberg tweeted that a heavily subsidized power plant in the UK, operated by Drax corporation, is the largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the UK and the third largest in Europe. She was trying to raise awareness about a loophole that allows these emissions not to be counted as part of the UK’s CO2 emissions because the thermal-electric generating station now burns wood pellets instead of coal.

Wood pellets fall under the category of biomass energy and are considered “climate neutral” because replanted forests will eventually absorb the CO2 emitted when burning the wood for electricity. The problem is that it can take decades or as much as 100 years for the forests to mature enough to recover the CO2 emitted by burning wood. By then we may have crossed multiple tipping points and triggered irreversible climate breakdown. Policies that allow corporations to burn now and hopefully fix later are just too risky.

This is the dire warning from Thunberg and a 2021 letter from over 500 scientists calling for an end to the burning of woody biomass. The letter states: The burning of wood will increase warming for decades to centuries. That is true even when the wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas.” Shortly after Thunberg’s plea, the European Parliament voted not to declassify woody biomass as a renewable energy.

Background of woody biomass business

In the beginning, the wood pellet industry seemed like a good idea. Forestry produced a huge amount of waste material for decades a lot of that material was simply burned or dumped and allowed to decay naturally. Clear-cutting and milling lumber produced a tremendous amount of waste wood and fibre. Biomass manufacturing emerged to profit from turning waste material into combustible wood pellets.

These pellets were produced with very low moisture content, which allowed them to be burned with high combustion efficiency. They became a popular and less polluting alternative to burning logs in wood stoves and also caught on for firing boilers in some industrial applications. However, the success of the product turned a good idea into a solution that’s arguably worse than the problem it solves.

By the 1990s, public awareness of climate change was growing rapidly and industries were looking for solutions. New wood pellet companies, like Canada’s Pinnacle Pellet Inc., were building large production facilities and marketing wood pellets as a renewable fuel source. It wasn’t an unreasonable claim and the industry appeared to check all the boxes for a sustainable business.

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Pellet production grew exponentially from 2000 to 2018, reaching 55.7 million tonnes annually in Canada. Significant growth in the last 10 to 15 years has been driven by demand for woody biomass to replace coal used to generate electricity. In 2014, the Atikokan generating station in Ontario was North America’s first to convert from coal to wood pellets. By 2018, the Drax Power station in the United Kingdom had converted half of its six coal-fired generating units and was burning seven million tons of pellets annually.

In the EU, there are now powerful incentives to switch existing electricity plants to woody biomass. Since woody biomass is considered renewable it is exempt from carbon pricing and its CO2 emissions aren’t counted. Many countries have introduced policies to eliminate coal as a fuel source and by simply switching to burning wood, governments can claim to be off coal while the policy allows them to claim huge reductions in carbon emissions despite the fact that burning wood emits as much CO2 as burning coal.

These biomass incentives will continue to drive global demand as more governments and corporations elect to adopt one of the world’s most dangerous examples of green washing. How dangerous? The International Energy Agency (IEA) announced in December of 2022 that global coal production was expected to surpass eight billion tonnes per year. How many trees will fall if a significant amount of that coal demand is replaced with woody biomass?

Waste wood wanted

As World War II was entering its final cataclysmic year in 1944, Oregon’s Assistant State Forester was assessing the issue of forestry waste wood and the practice of burning slash piles. W. F. McCulloch presented evidence that burning slash piles may not reduce the risk of forest fires and in fact wildfires were most common in areas where more forest cover was removed. Larger clear-cuts had greater risk of fire. Almost a century later, the forestry industry still believes that burning slash piles will prevent forest fires.

A slash pile is created from stumps, discarded branches, treetops and low-grade timber when a stand of forest is clear-cut. It has long been standard forest management practice to burn slash piles because hauling tonnes of that material out of the forest isn’t economically viable. Leaving the debris behind was thought to be a fire hazard.

McCulloch concluded that there were many situations when burning was unwarranted and that after 10 to 15 years the risk of fire hazard was roughly equivalent for areas where slash was burned versus not burned. His report also indicated intentional burning of slash significantly damaged the soil and impeded the natural regrowth of timber. It is astounding that with our modern “sustainable” forestry management practices, we still haven’t come up with a better solution than slash pile burning. Perhaps hauling out slash to produce pellets is the solution they’ve been seeking all these years, but it should be part of a process that leaves some logs and waste wood in place to help regenerate the forest.

Skyrocketing demand for wood pellets has put pressure on the industry to increase supply. Sawmill waste isn’t increasing, but slash piles seem like an untapped resource. In British Columbia, a credit system was designed to encourage timber companies to haul out low-grade logs that would typically be left on the ground or burned in slash piles. The credit system ensures that delivery of these logs to wood pellet manufacturing plants will not impact the companies Annual Allowable Cut (AAC) in regions of B.C. where there is a need for this material.

The credit system was intended help supply the wood pellet manufacturers with badly needed waste wood. The problem is that the credit system provides incentive for harvesting stands of low-grade trees within a cut block. In 2022, a BBC report and an episode of The Fifth Estate both indicated that Drax was clear cutting forests and sending whole logs to their pellet manufacturing plants.

Drax harvested low-grade logs for their operations and sold off the larger, high-grade timber. The Fifth Estate revealed that slash piles were still being left behind while stands of forest were now specifically being harvested for the end use of burning in Drax’s UK power plants.

This is the fundamental problem with woody biomass replacing coal as the fuel for thermal generation of electricity. When the demand is large enough, there’s no choice but to log trees for fuel. The B.C. government’s credit system allows harvesting of this low-grade timber to not count towards a timber company’s AAC, essentially making it bonus timber that normally wouldn’t be harvested.

The practice of logging trees for the production of wood pellets is not confined to B.C.’s forest industry. An Environmental Investigation Agency report concludes, “the consumption of whole logs from protected forests for biomass is not an isolated problem, but instead is common in many EU countries.” In the United States, The Dogwood Alliance claims that over one million acres of forest in America has been lost due to wood pellet biomass production.

Systemic problems put ecosystems in peril

Clearly, there is a problem with this system. The European Union heavily subsidize the burning of trees for electricity by exempting them from a countries carbon emissions even though wood pellets emit as much, if not more carbon than burning coal. Exempting woody biomass from carbon pricing is even more ludicrous. Burning wood is being subsidized while at the same time governments are investing billions in planting trees.

In the midst of a climate emergency, why are policy makers enthusiastically creating a new economy around harvesting and burning the forests that are critical to sequestering and storing carbon on the planet earth? For decades we’ve been dragging our feet on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, timber harvests have continued unabated, and now we’re burning up wood fibre that could be used in longer lasting products like plywood, medium density fibreboard (MDF) and other engineered wood products. We are placing zero value on our forests’ ability to absorb and sequester carbon. Similarly, ecosystem services have no value.

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New research indicates that the world’s forests remove 15.6 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere annually. This is offset by over 8 billion tonnes of emissions due to deforestation and other disturbances. Perhaps we could allow trees to do their job and stop working against them by cutting down 10 million hectares of forest every year.

In spite of the public support behind preserving the world’s forests, electricity producers in Europe have convinced politicians that burning wood pellets reduces CO2 emissions in comparison to burning coal because reforestation eventually absorbs the carbon emitted by burning wood.

The success of this simplistic idea is devastating forests around the world, driving more rapid warming of our planet, and creating conditions less conducive to healthy forests. Clear cutting rainforests removes millions of life-supporting trees, destroys the soil, increases erosion due to run off, and creates hot zones where plant life struggles to recover. And yet, demand for wood pellets is growing exponentially.

The Drax corporation has significant electricity generating capacity in the United Kingdom, but in recent years they have been acquiring forestry licences and wood pellet production facilities. It’s a fabulous business model, evidenced by their 2022 annual report, where Drax revenues were up 53 per cent from the previous year. But Drax is only one of many global pellet producers such as Enviva, Graanul Invest, and Airex Energy.

All these corporations promote themselves as green, sustainable, and solving global warming. Most haven’t been in existence long enough for newly planted forests to absorb the carbon their pellets emit when burned. Relying on the future carbon sequestration of second growth forests ignores the urgency of our situation and neglects the fact that the forests planted by corporations are tree farms intended to create new supply as quickly as possible. These mono-crop ecosystems lack biodiversity and are far less resilient than the ecosystems they replace. Forest plantations are more susceptible to threats like drought, bark beetle infestation and wildfires.

Forest assets management in Canada

This all begs the question: Are Canadians being fairly compensated for our natural assets?

A Canadian Forest Industries magazine article summarizes the economic benefits of B.C. forestry. Each year, the industry generates $15 billion in Gross Domestic Product, $4 billion in tax revenues and creates 100,000 jobs. All this economic goodness is achieved by harvesting less than one per cent of B.C.’s forests. The article goes on to describe why the forestry industry needs to harvest old growth forests. Apparently, not harvesting these high value trees would have unacceptable economic consequences for their business. Conversely, they claim the old-growth harvest is too small to worry about from an environmental perspective.

The B.C. government reports that the amount of old growth forest logged annually is 0.3 per cent of the estimated 11.1 million hectares of old growth in the province. This sounds like a small amount but it is roughly equivalent to 66,000 Canadian Football League fields, every year.

When these ecosystems are clear-cut it’s not just the trees that are wiped out. Hundreds of different plant species, soil microbes, fungi, birds, insects and larger wildlife are devastated. The trees, plants and soil also draw down great amounts of carbon each year. According to Nature United, coastal rainforest annually absorbs 22 tonnes of CO2 per hectare. Are forestry companies adequately compensating Canadians for the timber, ecosystem services, embodied carbon and annual carbon sequestration services?

The total annual harvest of all forests in B.C. is approximately 200,000 hectares per year, which is considered a sustainable level of harvesting. According to a report by the University of Victoria, coastal old growth forests can store up to 1130 tonnes of carbon per hectare while second growth stands of forest only store only 200 tonnes of carbon per hectare. Forest plantations are not paying back the carbon debt acquired by logging old growth or primary growth forests.

Using a rough average of 500 tonnes of carbon per hectare, 200,000 hectares of forest contains more than 1 billion tonnes of stored carbon. The EU’s current price on carbon is in the ballpark of $150 Canadian dollars per tonne. Based on this price, forestry corporations are extracting $15 billion in public carbon assets annually, while only contributing $4 billion in tax revenue. This estimate is incomplete because it doesn’t factor in the value of ecosystem services and annual carbon sequestration provided by the forest that’s been harvested, but it does suggest that foresters aren’t paying full value for their raw material.

Biomass equivalence in renewable energy

B.C. Hydro produced a report in 2018 that estimated the cost of electricity from woody biomass ranged from $123/MWh for sawmill waste to $254/MWh for standing timber. The report states that sawmill waste is in short supply, indicating a cost well above B.C.’s average electricity cost of $97/MWh. In B.C., woody biomass is uncompetitive as an energy source without significant government subsidies. This is also the case in the United States and European Union.

Although the EU has plans to phase out electricity generated from coal, hundreds of coal-fired plants are still supplying their electricity grid. Switching to wood pellets is enticing because existing infrastructure can continue to operate for years to come. However, using woody biomass instead of coal to generate electricity comes with subsidy costs to pay for conversion of the coal-fired generators and to compensate for the higher cost of biomass supply.

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According to Friends of the Earth, Drax has received more than four billion pounds in subsidies over the last ten years to convert its coal boilers to burn wood pellets, with another two billion committed by 2027. Drax is also looking for billions more in subsidies to implement Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which will further reduce their CO2 emissions in coming years.

Investing huge amounts of capital in woody biomass conversions with CCS will only prolong the harvesting of trees for electricity. Is this the best investment for the future? Let’s look at a couple examples.

Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam generating station equipped one of it’s newer 160MW coal-fired generating units at a heavily subsidized cost of approximately $1 billion dollars. Although, the technology has struggled to meet expectations, it is designed to capture 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

By contrast, the Travers Solar Project in Alberta cost approximately $700 million and was primarily funded by a $500 million investment from Denmark-based Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. Travers will generate several gigawatt hours of electricity per year while annually offsetting 624,000 tonnes of GHGs, including CO2 and methane. The Travers solar facility cost less than adding CCS to an existing coal-fired generator unit, produces more energy than the Boundary Dam unit, has zero emissions, and required no government subsidies.

Electricity generation from a wood-fired boiler does provide a reliable source of energy that is available 24/7. However, long duration energy storage solutions exist, as do other base-load power options such as closed-loop geothermal and nuclear energy. The intermittency of wind and solar can also be addressed through power sharing across larger geographical areas.

The number of countries achieving 100 per cent electricity generation from renewable energy is growing, with many others steadily increasing the share of renewables in their energy mix. In 2022, Greece began hitting periods of 100 per cent renewable generation. Iceland, Norway, Paraguay and Costa Rica were at or just below 100 per cent renewable as early as 2018.

There are many examples of regions around the world that are achieving fully renewable electricity grids without resorting to the burning of wood pellets. They have invested predominantly in wind and solar energy while having existing infrastructure in hydro, geothermal and nuclear energy. Regions that are hampered with fossil fuel electricity face a more difficult transition, but it seems like investing in solutions to stabilize the grid with more wind and solar generation is a far better choice than investing in burning forests.

Global implications  

Countries that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels for electricity generation have a technical challenge, but political challenges are the greatest impediment to a clean energy transition. In Natural Gas producing regions like Texas and Alberta, lobbyists and the politicians they capture have been relentless in creating policy and subsidies to prolong the use of gas turbines for electricity generation. Similarly, regions that have extensive coal-fired generating capacity are working to avoid stranding these assets and burning wood pellets is a logical option provided this electricity generation is deemed renewable.

Wind and solar energy utilize inexhaustible natural resources. Imagine a free supply of energy that will exist for billions of years. Woody biomass may seem inexhaustible, but over 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses since 1990 and this doesn’t include primary forests around the world that have been logged and replaced with mono-crop tree plantations.

Global Forest Watch estimates a total of 437 million hectares of tree cover has been lost since 2000, equivalent to an 11 per cent loss of tree cover and 176 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions. Wildfires in the boreal forests of Canada, Alaska and Russia are on the increase due to global warming. Global Forest Watch reports that tree cover losses in northern regions of the world were the highest on record in 2021. But the true scale of forest loss over the years is hidden by regrowth of planted or naturally regenerating forests adding to tree cover. If warming trends impede that regrowth while our consumption continues unabated, we will see an accelerating decline in global forest cover.

Given the threats to forests from both human activities and the impact of climate change, does it make any sense to generate electricity from burning trees? As the world electrifies the demand for electricity is going to steadily increase. If the EU and other regions continue to switch from coal to wood pellets for electricity, the demand for timber will also continue to increase exponentially.

Perhaps Thunberg is right. The wood pellet industry is already large enough to threaten governments with job losses and economic disruption if there is any attempt to put the brakes on the business of burning our future. Corporations will promise to be environmental stewards and make claims that their business is a model of sustainability.

Do we have time to wait and see if they will deliver on their promises? Will the wood pellet industry turn the tide on the decline of forests around the world or will they simply point to other causes of deforestation as the real problem? It’s up to governments to look far enough into the future and decide if their policies will harm or protect our climate. Unfortunately, some governments seem to make a habit of subsidizing the industries that threaten our demise.

Rob Miller is a retired systems engineer who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action. As a climate activist, he works to stop old-growth logging in British Columbia, to reject coal mining on Alberta’s eastern slopes, to facilitate community involvement in urban afforestation, and to advocate for renewable energy. Miller uses a “systems-thinking” approach to learn, understand, and defend the ecosystems that are under threat by climate change and unrestrained resource development.

Featured image credit: Getty Images.

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