Europe Is Sacrificing Its Ancient Forests for Energy


Governments wager billions on burning timber for inexperienced energy. The Instances went deep into one of many continent’s oldest woodlands to trace the hidden price.

Burning wooden was by no means speculated to be the cornerstone of the European Union’s inexperienced power technique.

When the bloc started subsidizing wooden burning over a decade in the past, it was seen as a fast increase for renewable gasoline and an incentive to maneuver properties and energy crops away from coal and gasoline. Chips and pellets had been marketed as a approach to flip sawdust waste into inexperienced energy.

These subsidies gave rise to a booming market, to the purpose that wooden is now Europe’s largest renewable power supply, far forward of wind and photo voltaic.

European governments depend wooden energy towards their clean-energy targets. However analysis reveals it may be dirtier than coal.

Andreea Campeanu for The New York Instances

However at present, as demand surges amid a Russian power crunch, entire bushes are being harvested for energy. And proof is mounting that Europe’s wager on wooden to handle local weather change has not paid off.

Forests in Finland and Estonia, for instance, as soon as seen as key property for decreasing carbon from the air, are actually the supply of a lot logging that authorities scientists take into account them carbon emitters. In Hungary, the federal government waived conservation rules final month to permit elevated logging in old-growth forests.

And whereas European nations can depend wooden energy towards their clean-energy targets, the E.U. scientific analysis company mentioned final yr that burning wooden launched extra carbon dioxide than would have been emitted had that power come from fossil fuels.

“Individuals purchase wooden pellets considering they’re the sustainable selection, however in actuality, they’re driving the destruction of Europe’s final wild forests,” mentioned David Gehl of the Environmental Investigation Company, a London-based advocacy group that has studied wooden use in Central Europe.

The business has change into so massive that researchers can’t maintain observe of it. E.U. official research couldn’t determine the supply of 120 million metric tons of wooden used throughout the continent final yr — a spot greater than the size of Finland’s total timber business. Researchers say most of that in all probability was burned for heating and electrical energy.

The E.U. consumes extra wooden pellets than every other area

Supply: Bioenergy Europe

Subsequent week, the European Parliament is scheduled to vote on a invoice that might remove most business subsidies and prohibit international locations from burning entire bushes to fulfill their clear power targets. Solely power from wooden waste like sawdust would qualify as renewable, and thus be eligible for subsidies.

However a number of European governments say that now’s no time to meddle with an essential power business, with provides of Russian gasoline and oil in jeopardy. Within the Czech Republic, protesters have mobbed the streets, livid with rising power prices, and the French authorities have warned of rolling blackouts this winter.

Inner paperwork present that Central European and Nordic international locations, specifically, are pushing exhausting to maintain the wooden subsidies alive.

The talk is an acute instance of one of many key challenges that governments face in combating local weather change: how one can stability the urgency of a warming planet in opposition to the speedy want for jobs, power and financial stability. The European Union has been a pacesetter in setting inexperienced insurance policies, however it is usually racing to search out power sources as Russia throttles again its provide of pure gasoline.

In paperwork circulated amongst lawmakers in regards to the proposed rule change, Latvia warned of a “attainable detrimental impression on funding and companies.” Denmark argued that these selections must be left to nationwide governments. A winter with out dependable Russian gasoline looms over the controversy.

Scientists have warned of this second for years.

Loading logs onto a truck within the forest across the Gurghiu Mountains in northern Romania.

Andreea Campeanu for The New York Instances

To have an opportunity of combating local weather change, international locations should scale back the quantity of carbon dioxide they launch into the air. That can require a shift away from fossil fuels. The European Union has required international locations to fulfill aggressive renewable-energy targets. Wooden qualifies as renewable power, on the logic that bushes in the end develop again.

In 2018, the final time the subsidies got here up for a vote, practically 800 scientists signed a letter urging lawmakers to cease treating logged bushes as a inexperienced supply of power. Whereas bushes will be replanted, it could possibly take generations for a rising forest to reabsorb the carbon dioxide from burned wooden.

“Utilizing wooden intentionally harvested for burning will enhance carbon within the ambiance and warming for many years to centuries,” the scientists wrote.

One of many authors of that letter, Tim Searchinger, a Princeton environmental science scholar, mentioned European lawmakers had been understandably keen to search out inexperienced power, however they incorrectly lumped all renewable sources collectively. “I’m undecided folks had been considering a lot about wooden in any respect once they handed these legal guidelines,” he mentioned.

Even one of many godfathers of the coverage, the previous European Union environmental official Jorgen Henningsen, went to his demise mattress final yr regretting pushing so aggressively for wooden power.

Immediately, as the controversy intensifies, environmental advocacy teams are utilizing new instruments to argue that it’s time to change course.

Consultants with the Environmental Investigation Company, working with a unfastened community of forestry conservationists, have spent practically a yr mountaineering into a few of the continent’s oldest forests and attaching monitoring units to bushes. They’ve scraped authorities truck-location knowledge and tracked bushes from pure parks and conservation areas to wooden mills. They’ve linked loggers to corporations advertising wooden pellets as carbon-neutral gasoline.

They discovered that pillaging Europe’s final standing wild forests to make pellets has change into a widespread apply in Central Europe.

Delivering wooden to Ameco, one in every of Romania’s greatest pellet-producing corporations.

Andreea Campeanu for The New York Instances

The New York Instances supplemented the group’s knowledge with publicly obtainable information. A reporter and photographer spent 4 days mountaineering via Romania’s forests, which characterize two-thirds of the European Union’s virgin woodlands. There, they documented clearcutting and adopted vehicles from ecologically delicate forests.

Though logging just isn’t forbidden in Europe’s protected forests, governments are required to conduct environmental assessments to make sure the land is being conserved. However specialists say that such assessments are uncommon. Final yr, the European Court docket of Auditors raised the alarm on these supposedly protected forests, discovering lots of them in “dangerous or poor conservation standing.”

Immediately, after a 2,200-foot hike up Ceahlau Mountain in Romania, a path of picket carcasses is seen beneath, a scar throughout one in every of Europe’s final old-growth forests the place 200-year-old bushes as soon as stood.

Additional down the mountain, logs had been loaded on a truck branded for Ameco, one in every of Romania’s greatest pellet producers. “Pellet manufacturing presents the likelihood to make use of waste from agriculture and forestry,” the corporate says on its web site. Its pellet baggage are labeled as coming solely from sawdust and wooden chips.

Instances journalists noticed bushes from Romania’s protected forests being fed into Ameco grinders.

Injury from logging in Romania’s Cheile Bicazului-Hasmas Nationwide Park

Logs have been shipped to Ameco and different corporations that make pellets.

Trails carved by

logging automobiles

Trails carved by

logging automobiles

Trails carved by

logging automobiles

Satellite tv for pc pictures from Planet Labs

The corporate additionally says its product doesn’t emit greenhouse gasoline when burned. Scientists have calculated that, per unit of power, burning wooden truly releases extra greenhouse gasoline emissions than burning gasoline, oil, and even coal.

Ameco declined interview requests. In an electronic mail, an Ameco gross sales supervisor denied that the corporate logged from ecologically delicate forests. When The Instances replied that reporters had witnessed six truckloads from these websites, and that Ameco’s personal transport knowledge confirmed lots of extra, a second firm consultant responded, acknowledging the shipments however saying they had been all authorized.

In accordance with the Environmental Investigation Company’s knowledge, most main pellet crops in Romania have acquired entire logs from protected forests. The group calculated that a few third of wooden shipments to those factories originated in protected areas.

“As soon as you narrow down these outdated bushes, you degrade ecosystems that took centuries to type with little human intervention,” mentioned Dan-Catalin Turiga, a forest engineer who accompanied Instances reporters. Mr. Turiga can be an investigator with an environmental group referred to as Agent Inexperienced, which collaborated on the tree-tracking initiative.

Mr. Turiga pointed to logging roads reduce on very steep slopes, inflicting erosion and runoff into waterways. “Planting new bushes gained’t restore the biodiversity that existed,” he mentioned.

Dan-Catalin Turiga, a forest engineer and investigator with the environmental group Agent Inexperienced supported by EuroNatur, in Romania’s Cheile Bicazului-Hasmas Nationwide Park.

Andreea Campeanu for The New York Instances

Forest homeowners, state or personal, are supposed to switch reduce bushes with new ones inside two years to assist stability the carbon cycle. However environmental teams have shown through the years that this isn’t all the time accomplished. Instances journalists noticed broad swaths of land that had been registered as logged years in the past, but no replanting was accomplished. In some circumstances, saplings died, presumably due to the degraded soil.

Reporters additionally noticed an unregistered truck hauling wooden, the form of logging that helps clarify why European researchers are unable to determine the supply of a lot timber. The Environmental Investigation Company discovered repeated examples of unregistered shipments. In some circumstances, shipments had been understated or similar load weights had been recorded a number of days in a row.

This might qualify as unlawful logging in Romania. The nation’s environmental ministry didn’t reply to written questions on these shipments, the proposed legislation change and the pellet business generally.

Reviews of wooden harvesting inside protected areas and outdoors protected areas previously yr

Supply: Romania’s timber monitoring system, SUMAL, compiled by the Environmental Investigation Company

The Environmental Investigation Company tracked logs from ecologically important forests to 10 pellet mills and three energy crops in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Poland.

Bioenergy Europe, a commerce affiliation, mentioned issues had been uncommon. When harvested appropriately and sustainably, wooden stays essential at a time when Europe is determined to search out home, renewable sources of power, mentioned Irene di Padua, the group’s coverage director.

“We nonetheless can enhance capability in Europe in a sustainable means,” she mentioned.

The affiliation opposes reducing subsidies or altering the way in which clear power is outlined. If the European Union now not considers power from burnt wooden to be carbon-neutral, it might instantly throw many international locations off observe to hit renewable-energy targets.

That will have main penalties for international locations like Italy, the continent’s largest client of wooden pellets. Greater than a 3rd of its renewable power comes from burning plant materials. For years, the Italian authorities has provided tax deductions to encourage shopping for pellet stoves.

Related tax breaks are in place in different international locations, together with monetary incentives for wooden producers. These incentives might be illegal if the brand new proposal comes into pressure.

The stays of an outdated tree reduce in Ceahlau Nationwide Park.

Andreea Campeanu for The New York Instances

Even when the European Parliament endorses a change, nevertheless, the small print should be labored out in negotiations with nationwide governments.

The governments of Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg have signaled help for ending the subsidies. Different international locations have stayed largely silent.

Whereas environmental teams are nonetheless optimistic, even probably the most strident supporters of the rule change acknowledge that the Russian power disaster has made the politics difficult. Pure gasoline costs have elevated tenfold over the previous yr, and plenty of Europeans concern being unable to afford to warmth their properties this winter.

“We want extra home renewable power and self-sufficiency, not much less,” Antti Kurvinen, the Finnish minister for agriculture and forestry, wrote on Twitter in Could. “I’ll totally promote forest power.”

Andreea Campeanu for The New York Instances

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