Up in Smoke
Europe’s “Green” Power Fueled by Burning Wood

Nearly two-thirds of the Europe’s renewable energy comes from burning wood. No, this isn’t some time capsule report from 500 years ago—that’s actually what the European Union is doing to meet its vaunted climate targets. The BBC reports:

While much of the discussion has focussed on wind and solar power, across Europe the biggest source of green energy is biomass. It supplies around 65% of renewable power – usually electricity generated from burning wood pellets. EU Governments, under pressure to meet tough carbon cutting targets, have been encouraging electricity producers to use more of this form of energy by providing substantial subsidies for biomass burning.

If cutting down trees and burning them doesn’t sound green to you, that’s because, well, it’s not. It only becomes “climate neutral” when you include some clever accounting: if foresters replant a tree for every one they cut down, then from a “life-cycle” perspective, the emissions involved in burning that wood is offset by the carbon captured by the new forests.

But a new report from Chatham House scrutinizes that calculus as little more than fuzzy math:

“It doesn’t make sense,” said [Duncan Brack, the report’s author], who is also a former special adviser at the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. “The fact that forests have grown over the previous 20 or 100 years means they are storing large amounts of carbon, you can’t pretend it doesn’t make an impact on the atmosphere if you cut them down and burn them…You could fix them in wood products or in furniture or you could burn them, but the impact on the climate is very different.”

Mr Brack says the assumption of carbon neutrality misses out on some crucial issues, including the fact that young trees planted as replacements absorb and store less carbon than the ones that have been burned.

This dodgy carbon accounting has come under fire (no pun intended) before, and for good reason: it doesn’t pass the common sense test. Even if you claim that the carbon capturing abilities of felled trees are offset by new forests, you need to consider that those new trees will take decades to reach full maturity—decades in which they won’t be sequestering carbon. Then too, consider that every step of the biomass production process—cutting trees down, trucking them out, machining them into pellets, and then shipping those pellets to the power plants where they’ll be burned—all entail emissions of their own.

There’s another big problem here, too. Europe buys much of their wood pellets from outside the bloc, and there’s little in the way of regulatory oversight to ensure felled trees are replanted, opening the door to opportunists looking to make a quick buck. And, as the BBC explains, the vagaries of international carbon accounting are producing some odd numbers for Europe:

[U]nder UN climate rules, emissions from trees are only counted when they are harvested. However the US, Canada and Russia do not use this method of accounting so if wood pellets are imported from these countries into the EU, which doesn’t count emissions from burning, the carbon simply goes “missing”.

With 65 percent of Europe’s renewable energy coming from biomass, you’d think this would be a bigger scandal. Perhaps the Eurocrats in Brussels are unwilling to examine the problem too closely, fearful that an in-depth investigation might kill the region’s best chance at meeting the climate targets it set for itself. Countries in Europe seem to be doubling down on biomass, too, a decision some observers say is “disastrous” for the environment. The longer this goes on, the more apparent it is that the EU cares more about appearing to be green than it does about actually tackling the issues it makes such a big to-do about on the international stage.

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