American trees are fueling Europe’s renewable energy targets – here’s where Americans are hit hardest | national news
The European Union in 2020 was sourcing 21.3% of its energy from renewable sourcesexceeding his 2009 goal. With most of the continent’s energy coming from oil and petroleum products, his announcement was one of the first ambitious global pledges to tackle climate change. Among the wide range of renewable energy sources on which Europe relied, one source accounted for nearly half of the continent’s renewable supply: biomass.
Broadly speaking, biomass is any organic material used as fuel and can include manure, agricultural or industrial waste, garbage and most importantly, wood. Burning wood as fuel is nothing new: as countries move away from coal and other fossil fuels, the popularity of biomass is growing, leading to an increase in demand for wood pellets.
Stacker data quoted from international trade center, Eurostatand the Southern Environmental Law Center to examine how the growing US wood pellet industry is fueling European energy, despite its controversial environmental reputation.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol first saw wood pellets as a carbon-neutral energy source. The world was starting to think more seriously about climate change at the time, and pellets became an easy substitute for moving away from coal-fired installations. Woody biomass companies replant trees while harvesting timber, allowing young forests to absorb carbon while justifying biomass as a renewable energy source. But the carbon neutrality of biomass is not immediate: it takes years for new young trees to reach the carbon absorption capacity of older trees being harvested. During this time, the wood pellets are burned and emit the CO2 once stored by the wood. The resulting carbon debt can take decades for newly planted trees to be offset.
Scientists also note that viewing wood pellets as carbon neutral neglects supply chain emissions. An analysis of the Environmental Integrity Project published in 2018 found that 21 wood pellet facilities exporting to Europe were emitting 16,000 tonnes of air pollutants per year. Transport in transatlantic ships is another phase often overlooked in woody biomass carbon calculations.
Scientists have begun to question the sustainability of woody biomass and whether the displacement of a fossil fuel is now causing the disruption of forest ecosystems, while continuing to emit greenhouse gases. Read on to learn more about the complexities of renewable energy.