Reflections on a controversial and confounding climate solution

Friday, April 30, 2021

One of the most complex and fascinating stories I’ve written came out yesterday in the New York Times and I want to share it with you.

This story, like all good stories, has a backstory. Some years ago I began hearing that trees in the South were being chopped down, turned into pellets and shipped to Europe to produce electricity that was supposedly carbon neutral. It seemed like a bizarre case of climate policy gone haywire, but I didn’t start looking into it in earnest until about a year ago. Once I did, I found several environmental groups that are very outspoken and easy to reach and that tell a compelling story about a massive expansion of logging in ecologically sensitive forests to feed European power plants. So that’s what I expected to see a few weeks ago when I traveled to eastern North Carolina.

But the reality on the ground is rather different. First of all, forests and forestry are far more complex than how they’re often described. There’s a persistent idea, dating perhaps to the early romantics, that “real” forests exist in some ahistorical space outside of human influence. This idea is pretty much nonsense. In the eastern United States, forests have been managed and manipulated by humans for more than 10,000 years. If we could go back to, say, the year 1400, we would probably be shocked by the amount of smoke in the air from fires Native people set to manage their forests for hunting, food production and other purposes. That we have all but eliminated fire from most eastern forests is not an example of returning forests to “nature” but actually a management choice with wide-ranging, and often negative, effects.

Today, most forests in my part of the world are owned by individuals, families or corporations. And most forest owners are going to have them logged at some point, whether to pay land taxes, to fund their retirements or kids’ educations or for some other reason. The pellet industry did not create that situation – it’s a legacy of colonialism, Indigenous displacement and the privatization of most land in the East before the federal government got into the land acquisition business. It is definitely open to questioning – scientists have pointed out a dramatic mismatch between where large amounts of land are protected, mostly out West, and areas that have high biodiversity, many of which are in the Southeast. (Here’s a good piece on that issue.) But like it or not, it is the reality right now.

A common sight in the South: a clearcut forest

Logging is also more complex than environmentalists often make it sound. Wood pellet makers, at least the ones I reported on, do not own forests or logging crews; they contract out to third parties, like much of the forest products industry. For any given cut, loggers send the best stuff to sawmills, which pay the highest prices and cut wood for the increasingly large houses we all want to live in and the solid-wood furniture we all want to buy. The smaller or more crooked pieces are divided among other buyers – paper mills (think all those Amazon boxes), fluff mills (did you know that diaper makers are a big user of pulpwood?) and pellet mills. The pellet industry has not grown large enough to single-handedly deplete forests or biodiversity at a landscape scale, as some environmentalists imply. That’s not to say it couldn’t grow that large in the future, especially if big countries like the U.S. or China start to rely heavily on wood energy.  

Some advocates want forests to be left alone to accumulate carbon and host wildlife. That’s a noble idea that I can understand the appeal of; there is nothing joyful about the sight of a clearcut. But there are several problems with this idea. One, who is going to compensate the millions of people who expect to earn money from having their forests logged at some point? It’s hard to imagine anyone endorsing a program to ship huge amounts of public money to private forest owners.  

And two, what materials are we going to make things out of, if not wood? Steel? Concrete? Petrochemicals? Those are all far less environmentally friendly than wood. One remarkable thing about forestry today is that it produces huge amounts of lumber from forests that, at least from a carbon point of view, are growing, not shrinking. This does mean that a lot of land is devoted to growing pine trees as a crop. I don’t know about you, but a pine plantation doesn’t inspire in me the kind of awe I might feel in, say, an old, diverse hardwood forest. But if we accept that some land needs to be devoted to food crops to feed us, is there anything worse about putting some land into tree plantations to provide us materials, especially if it takes pressure off of other forests?  

Environmental groups are correct about some things. Pellet mills have real, negative impacts on people who live near them – we chose to lead our story with someone who has had a mill plopped basically in her backyard. And while the industry claims to provide an incentive for land owners to grow forests, this mostly means pine plantations, even if the original forest was diverse hardwood. If you can grow pine trees and cut them in 14 years or grow hardwood trees and cut them in 80 years, it’s pretty obvious which you are going to choose.

A wood pellet export terminal in Chesapeake, Virginia

Perhaps the most questionable claim is that wood pellets provide carbon-neutral energy. It’s odd that so much of Europe, which has a reputation (not always deserved) of being an environmental leader, has taken such a naive approach to this aspect of climate policy, while US policy makers have been much more rigorous and skeptical. On one of many long drives I took for this story, it occurred to me that if, as a society, we really wanted to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we would have already expanded the one reliable, carbon-free, 24/7 energy source that’s ready to use at scale today: nuclear power. That we’re instead trying to convince ourselves that cutting trees in one place and burning them in another is somehow tackling climate change is one indication – certainly not the only one – that we are not really taking the climate problem seriously and making the hard choices that need to be made.

Pellets are certainly not wiping out forests, and they’re also certainly not saving the climate. They are creating a lot of confusion and generating a lot of emotions. I hope my story was able to cut through some of the fog and move the conversation forward.

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