More than 650 scientists are urging world leaders to stop burning trees for energy, as it destroys valuable habitats for wildlife.
In the lead up to Cop15, the UN biodiversity summit, they say countries must urgently stop using forest bioenergy to create heat and power, as it undermines international targets in terms of climate and nature. Instead, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar should be used, they say.
Bioenergy has “been mistakenly considered ‘carbon neutral'” and many countries are increasingly relying on forest biomass to meet net zero goals, according to the letter to world leaders including Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “The best thing for the climate and biodiversity is to leave forests standing – and biomass energy does the opposite,” he says.
The letter says that if world leaders agree to protect 30% of land and seas by 2030 at the Cop15 meeting in Montreal, they must also commit to ending reliance on biomass energy. Commitments made at COP15 and climate conferences could be undermined if this practice continues, he says.
Professor Alexandre Antonelli, lead author of the letter and scientific director of Kew Gardens, said: “Ensuring energy security is a major societal challenge, but the answer is not to burn down our precious forests. Calling this “green energy” is misleading and risks accelerating the global biodiversity crisis.
By 2030, bioenergy should represent a third of “low carbon” energy, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.
The UK is the number one importer of wood pellets for biomass, and in 2019 over 5 million metric tonnes of them were imported from the US. Biomass burning is an important part of the UK’s net zero strategy and has been subsidized to the tune of £5.6 billion over the past decade.
Cutting down trees for bioenergy results in the release of carbon that would otherwise have been locked up in carbon-rich forests. This increases emissions and creates a “carbon debt”, which is only paid off decades or even centuries later if the trees grow back, scientists say.
Burning wood for electricity is also inefficient, releasing comparatively more carbon into the atmosphere than gas or coal. Additional energy is used to harvest and transport the wood. Experts have been warning for years about the climate impacts of bioenergy, but now they are also discovering that it also poses serious risks to nature, with many cases of protected forests being affected.
Canada, Estonia and the United States are the largest suppliers of wood for biomass. Professor William Moomaw, lead author of the letter from Tufts University of Massachusetts in the US, said: “Our forests are the most biodiverse places on earth, providing habitat for countless species. They also absorb almost 30% of all global emissions from burning fossil fuels.
“Clear logging for forest bioenergy is degrading coastal forests in the southeastern United States, a global biodiversity hotspot, the Baltic States in Europe, boreal forests in Canada, and illegally logging protected forest ecosystems in the Eastern European Carpathians. These are all home to irreplaceable rare plant species, migratory and residential mammals and birds.
Rare species like prothonotary warbler, boreal woodland caribou and black stork are among those in decline due to forest degradation.
Elly Pepper, from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Coalition Cut Carbon Not Forests (CCNF), said: “Governments and the bioenergy industry each have a hand on an ax that is decimating the forests of the world. Continuing to put fake renewable energy like biomass at the heart of their net zero plans will undermine any global deal promising to save nature by 2030.
“The world’s wildlife is already disappearing, and the bioenergy industry is helping to accelerate this trend by destroying valuable forest habitats.”
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