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News coverage relating to bioenergy published by ICIJ last week saw several articles contrast facts with opinions, giving the impression that opinions and subjective interpretations prevail the public debate. Such emotional portrayals of bioenergy use, however, are a great disservice to reaching our climate goals. Now more than ever, we must stick to a science-led, objective discourse to accelerate the phase out of fossil fuels.
Harvesting sites are no evidence of deforestation
The description of the wood pellet industry was a great example of science being ignored and arbitrary conclusions being presented as reality. Take the US Southeast, for example, where scientific studies show that forest inventories have doubled since the 1950s and wood used for pellet production accounts for less than 4% of all harvests. According to the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI), for every ton of wood harvested from working forests in the southeastern U.S., about 1.75 tons grow back each year. Despite this, aerial pictures and noncontextualized footage from harvest sites, alongside claims from an eNGO activist dominated the article, implying to the reader that there is something wrong with a practice that is entirely sustainable and contributes to mitigating climate change. A harvesting site is no evidence of deforestation. Forest management always includes harvesting, regeneration and thinning operations, and the key question is if regrowth is in balance with harvesting - which is granted - and if forest areas are converted to other uses - which is not the case.
Bioenergy from sustainably managed forests is an important climate mitigation tool
Detailed assessments of greenhouse gas emissions that need to be made on the basis of legal obligations show that pellet usage from this area in European power plants leads to a reduction of CO2 emissions by 70% to 80%. Nevertheless, based on arguments that have no scientific backing, claims are made that this practice is increasing CO2 levels. It should be noted that the IPCC as the key scientific authority regarding climate change, representing thousands of climate scientists, has clearly stated in several of its reports that the use of bioenergy from sustainably managed forests is an important mitigation tool in tackling climate change. It is regrettable and alarming that investigative journalists quote misleading information such as “wood emits more CO2 than fossil fuels” without regard for the consensus of climate scientists that the closed CO2 cycle of bioenergy use is clearly preferable to the use of fossil fuels.
Moreover, some articles claimed that the declining role of German forests as carbon sinks is a consequence of excessive harvesting when in fact it is related to overstocked forests and old trees growing at a slower place and, hence, absorbing less CO2. Another reason for the declining carbon sink functionality of forests is climate change, which has led to widespread damage of spruce forests. These forests should be transformed into mixed forests with deciduous trees to increase both biodiversity and resilience to climate change. But this requires more harvests, not less. Research shows that increased harvesting and replanting, thereby accelerating the transformation of Europe’s widespread spruce monocultures into resilient mixed forest stands, could lead to 12 billion tons of CO2 savings by 2050.
These savings would result from the replacement of concrete and steel as building materials by timber and from using the residues from harvesting and processing for energy, replacing fossil fuels.
Romania is one of the largest surplus forest growth areas
A particularly drastic example of misleading reporting related to pellet production in Romania, where news coverage focused on a small producer amid claims by an identified source that the wood used for production does not come from storm damage but from harvested trees seemingly not suitable for sawmills. Their attempts to portray this circumstance as scandalous is a great demonstration of sensational journalism. What is being used here in forestry terms is called industrial roundwood: wood that is cheap because its quality is so low that it cannot be used in sawmills. 13% of European pellet production is based on industrial roundwood, low quality wood that could otherwise only be used for toilet paper or newsprints, while 87% is based on sawmill byproducts. So where is the threat to sustainability?
Romania is one of the largest surplus forest growth areas in Europe, according to FAO data, with harvests amounting to only 20 million m3 versus annual growth of 58 million m3 in forest inventory. From the 600.000 tonnes of pellets that are being produced in Romania, 70% come from one major company that exclusively uses residues from its sawmill operations.
Illegal logging and deforestation must be prevented at all costs
Yes, there is deforestation and its consequences are catastrophic. But it does not happen in Europe of North America but in Africa, South America and parts of South East Asia. Yes there is illegal logging and this is both a criminal offense and a potential threat to forests and yes, law enforcement and certification systems should do everything to detect and stop such practices. But neither deforestation not illegal logging has anything to do with modern bioenergy use, neither in Europe nor or America. The value of energy wood is often only a third of the value of sawlogs or less. As a consequence, forest plots are harvested to produce to produce high value sawlogs, not bioenergy. Low quality wood is an inevitable sideproduct of harvesting and wood processing. The narrative of “burning forests for energy” is fiction.
Bioenergy will not be able to simply replace fossil fuels due to the tremendous amounts of these resources we use today. But in a world that has learned to use energy much more efficiently than today it will be a key resource, delivering about the same amount of energy as wind or solar energy.
Achieving net zero emissions is impossible, without using bioenergy. It is clear that bioenergy use must always respect the limits of sustainability and will require careful attention in a world, that has definitely shown too little respect for sustainability in the past. Publishing information suggesting unsustainable bioenergy use that contradicts facts and claiming “scientific proof” of what has been disapproved by the broad scientific community may be well intentioned in this context. However, it is not helpful in our joint quest to rapidly reduce GHG emissions and transform our economies, to keep our planet livable both for humans and the threatened diversity of plant and animal life.