Stop burning trees for energy, scientists urge ahead of UN biodiversity conference

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Forests are more valuable alive than dead, at least according to the more than 670 scientists who signed a letter urging world leaders to stop burning trees for energy. The plea comes as delegates gather for the United Nations Biodiversity Conference that begins today in Montreal.

The scientists want to stop industrially burning wood for electricity and heat, also known as forest bioenergy. The practice should be replaced by wind and solar power, they write, to protect forests and creatures that live there.

“The goal of halting and reversing global wildlife loss could fail because of the increasing pressure on forests from this industry,” the letter reads. It is addressed to the heads of government of China, the US, Canada, the UK, South Korea and Japan, as well as the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

“The goal of halting and reversing global wildlife loss could fail due to increasing pressure on forests from this industry”

Bioenergy is controversially labeled as renewable energy by governments and international institutions, including the US and the EU. It’s also technical considered the world’s largest “renewable” source of energy by the International Energy Agency (IEA) because, unlike wind and solar, it is already widely used as a fuel for heating and transportation.

To be considered renewable, the plants or trees used to produce bioenergy must be managed sustainably, that is, they must grow back. But it could take decades or even centuries for forests to recover from clear-cutting, the letter’s authors write. Forests that have been cleared are often replaced by monoculture plantations, nurseries of a single species that are nowhere near the same ecological benefits or shelter for wildlife.

Take the prothonotary warbler, a small bird with bright yellow feathers fading to slate blue along its wings, which breeds in wooded areas of the southeastern US. It is one of the species “declining due to the loss and degradation of these forests” for bioenergy, the scientists write.

Hardwood forests in the southeastern US have fallen victim to a bioenergy boom caused by countries in Europe switching to wood pellets as an alternative to coal. Bioenergy suppliers harvest forests in North Carolina and Virginia to produce wood pellets that are shipped abroad to be burned in power plants. The US exported about 5.7 million tonnes of wood pellets to the UK in 2019, the letter said. In addition to decimating forests, the growing demand for wood pellets has also burdened Black communities in North Carolina with increased pollution and noise. Scalawag magazine reported in 2020.

“It has been wrongly labeled ‘carbon neutral’”

The scientists who wrote the new letter fear that these kinds of problems will only get worse as bioenergy becomes more popular. According to the IEA, annual demand for biofuels is expected to grow by nearly 30 percent by 2026. It has become even more attractive to policymakers when combined with devices that capture carbon from power plants that burn wood pellets. The emerging technology is called BECCS, short for Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage. If the carbon dioxide released from the burning of the wood is captured and stored for a long time, countries can incorporate bioenergy into their plans to tackle climate change by achieving net zero carbon emissions.

“It is alarming that many countries, wrongly considered ‘carbon neutral’, are increasingly relying on forest biomass to meet net zero targets. This harms our world’s forests when we need them most,” the letter said.

Forests naturally store carbon dioxide, a service negated by logging for bioenergy. In addition, the forests are teeming with life, which is why scientists are now making noise at the UN Biodiversity Conference. Up to a million species are threatened with extinction by the end of the century, the scientists write, mostly due to habitat loss. Among the measures delegates are expected to discuss at the conference is an agreement to protect 30 percent of the Earth’s land and water by 2030.

If that is to happen, the world must also commit to “ending dependence on biomass energy,” the letter said. “The best thing for the climate and biodiversity is to leave forests.”

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