Dutch Biomass Agreement Aims High But Misses the Mark

Scot Quaranda & Adam Macon at the European Commission making the case for Southern forests.
Scot Quaranda & Adam Macon make the case for forests.

After 2 years of negotiations, Dutch NGO’s and Utility Companies agreed on a biomass policy for wood pellets currently burned for electricity. We in the Southern states know all too well that the drastic increase and scale of demand for wood pellets, driven by countries such as the Netherlands, have had devastating effects on forests and communities. This policy agreement, while not everything that the Our Forests Aren’t Fuel campaign demands, is another strong signal that current policies driving the biomass industry expansion are changing, and Southern states need to stop welcoming this industry with open arms. It is another example that our growing movement and direct advocacy to European decision makers is having a big impact.

The policy includes some positive developments. The Dutch agreement focuses on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. It is important to note that certification is not a substitute for carbon accounting, so while our forests may be better managed, even with FSC, CO2 emissions will continue to rise. That said, FSC is the only forest certification program that is generally accepted by environmental organizations. If less adequate industry standards such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) had been included, we would still have to deal with the worst of the worst practices such as logging of Endangered Forests, conversion of natural forests to pine plantations and the widespread use of toxic chemicals.

Despite industry concerns about the current lack of certified acres, market initiatives like Dogwood Alliance’s paper and packaging campaign have shown that leadership from key industry players and demand from the marketplace can drive increased certification and truly sustainable forestry. Five years ago there was very little, if any, FSC certified forests in the South, and now we have over 4 million certified acres.

While the agreement shows progress for scaling back this destructive industry, it is far from perfect, and we have several concerns.

The timeline for implementing the FSC standards leaves the door open for continued forest destruction for several years. While large tracts of land have to be certified immediately, “smaller” forest plots of under 1,200 acres will not have to seek FSC certification until 2022 or 2023, depending on the start date of the biomass facility. This is especially alarming as it’s been proven by numerous foresters and the US Forest Service that at current rates of extraction, logging and conversion of natural forests to pine plantations will have to increase to meet the wood pellet industry’s growing capacity. Forest conversion is a major cause for concern as 90 -99% of biodiversity is lost when natural forests are converted to pine plantations.

A vast majority of forested land in the South falls under this “smaller” category. This delay period will likely include the entire sourcing areas for the most destructive wood pellet manufacturers, such as Enviva.

Enviva Protest
Citizens protest the Enviva facility in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Biomass policies from European countries must be more aggressive with timelines for adequate sustainability standards; our forests depend on it.

At the rate wood pellet manufacturers are expanding in the Southern states, this 6-7 year gap could spell game over for hundreds of thousands of acres of Southern Forests.

Game over for Southern forests?
Game over for Southern forests?

We commend the Dutch for attempting to address the carbon accounting issue with its policy, but frankly, they missed the mark.

Despite leading science on the issue, the policy fails to incorporate smokestack emissions created by burning forests for fuel and loss of our forest carbon sink. The Dutch policy sticks with outdated EU methodology and only accounts for CO2 emissions in harvest and transport.

Sustainable forestry is not a substitute for accurate carbon accounting.

While we support true sustainable forestry, it does not account for carbon – even FSC acknowledges this.

The policies driving this industry are supposed to increase renewable energy and therefore reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. Burning forests is not a solution to climate change and does not reduce carbon emissions on the timeline necessary to save our planet. If we continue to ignore this root problem, we could potentially reverse all progress that has been made.

Meanwhile, here in the South, the striking conclusion is that wood pellet manufacturing facilities are a bad investment for our Southern states and communities.

The European policies that are driving this industry are changing, sending a strong signal that renewable energy subsidies for wood pellet production (at least in its current state) are no longer guaranteed. Yet, the Southern expansion continues at an unprecedented rate. In fact, new wood pellet manufacturing facilities are being proposed nearly every month, like this one in South Carolina, bringing our total to nearly 40 facilities either proposed or under construction.

When other European countries and the European Union transition to stronger biomass policies (something they have signalled will happen in the next couple of years), the entire demand market for wood pellets will change, leaving behind our local economies as many of these facilities become stranded assets.

We’re providing tax incentives and spending taxpayer dollars to support and welcome an industry that, due to changing policies, might not be relevant in the next 5 years! An industry that uses destructive practices to extract our forests, ship them to Europe, and burn them. Sending our natural flood protection, water purification, critical habitat and beautiful forests up in smoke. What kind of progress is that when truly sustainable solutions exist? It’s time that our local counties and states put the long term health of our economies and communities ahead of pleasing a European appetite for Southern forests.

With the growing controversy around the use of our forests for fuel and policies such as the Netherlands agreement, countries must ask: Is biomass from trees really a viable alternative source of energy? Or are our forests better left standing to do what they do best, sequester carbon?


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