Continuing our theme on bioenergy, we invited Danna Smith, Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance to share the threat it poses to America's forests and wildlife...
I was born and raised on the Atlantic coast of the Southern US. I spent most of my youthful years romping around in the woods, building forts, pretending to be lost in the wild and raised by animals, chasing butterflies, mimicking bird calls and otherwise reveling in the magical spaces created by the coastal forests that defined my place in the world… my home. And while most of my younger years were spent playing in these forests, I have spent the larger part of my adult life fighting to protect them from destructive industrial logging.
Today, one of the biggest threats to the forests in this part of the world is coming from European utility companies. At a time when scientific evidence is mounting that burning trees for electricity will actually result in increased carbon emissions when compared to coal over the next 30 to 50 years, utilities in Europe are converting coal burning power plants to wood, all in the name of “renewable energy.” Beyond the climate impacts, Europe’s use of wood to generate electricity threatens the survival of many unique species found in the forests of the Southern US.
In 2012, the Southern US emerged as the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets – the overwhelming majority of which are exported and burned in European power plants to generate electricity. Sixteen wood pellet facilities combined to export over 1.5 million tons or wood pellets to major European utility companies including Drax, RWE, Electrobel and E.On. An additional fifteen wood pellet facilities are currently proposed and market analysts project that wood pellet exports from the Southern US to Europe will more than triple to 5.7 million tons by 2015.
These wood pellet facilities, which are located within reasonable proximity to shipping ports, rely heavily on forests in the coastal plain of the South. These majestic forests with their intricate network of richly-diverse bottomland forested wetlands flanked by natural upland pine woodlands provide important habitat to countless species such as the black bear and the gopher tortoise. They are home to the world’s highest concentration of carnivorous plants, including the infamous Venus flytrap. Approximately 30% of threatened and endangered species in the Southeast depend on the bottomland hardwood wetland forests in the region.
In addition, about 85% of eastern North American bird species rely on these forests as well. Bird species at particular risk from industrial logging include the Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo and Prothonotary Warblers. Swallow-tailed Kites, a threatened landbird in the Southeastern US, have become a flagship for the conservation of bottomland hardwood forests. This increasingly rare bird has undergone one of the most drastic range restrictions of all North American landbirds, declining to a mere 15 to 25 percent of its historic range. Extensive logging of bottomland hardwood forests is considered a primary cause.
Years of intense industrial logging by paper and wood products manufacturers has already taken a toll on countless species, many of which have been hanging on by a thread. Land trusts have helped to purchase and protect some of the most special places in the region, though most forests still lack adequate protection. In addition, a recent promising trend of improved forestry practices by the paper industry (brought about by pubic campaigns) might have given some of these species some much needed space to recover. But, sadly, their future remains uncertain as industrial logging accelerates due to the demand by European utility companies for wood pellets.
Burning trees to generate electricity is bad for climate and forests and converting coal burning power plants to wood is not the path to a clean energy future. There is a path forward to a clean energy future that does not involve burning fossil fuels. Conservation and efficiency combined with power generated by the sun and wind are much better options; but, unfortunately European utilities are on the wrong track in turning to forests as a primary fuel source for generating electricity.
Danna Smith is a founder and executive director of Dogwood Alliance. She holds a Doctorate of Jurisprudence from Emory University. Prior to founding Dogwood Alliance, she worked for Greenpeace US.
Since 1996, Dogwood Alliance has increased protection for millions of acres of Southern forests by transforming the way corporations, landowners and communities value them for their climate, wildlife and water benefits. Dogwood Alliance has revolutionized the environmental practices of some of the world’s largest corporations. In addition to long-term work on driving sustainability in the paper industry, for the past four years the group has increased its focus on the destructive practices of the bioenergy industry. For more information on the organization please visit, www.dogwoodalliance.org.
What are your thoughts on biomass? What do you think the Government should be doing to make our energy system better for the climate and for wildlife?
Guest blogger: Matt Williams, Climate Change Policy Officer
My final couple of weeks in the RSPB climate change team are set to be exciting, as MPs prepare to debate the UK’s Energy Bill, which will shape the energy sources used to power Britain for the next forty years. This vital piece of legislation could prove crucial in whether the UK meets its carbon reduction targets, and provides an opportunity for us to shape the way we generate our energy and reduce the impacts on nature.
It also provides an opportunity to address the increasing role of biomass, where energy is generated by burning organic material, usually wood. Using certain wastes or residues for energy can be sensible options that help to reduce emissions and meet our renewable energy targets, but not all bioenergy is a good idea - Government plans to burn wood from newly harvested trees are bad news for wildlife and the climate.
This is of particular concern to the RSPB and we, along with Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, recently published a report showing that burning whole trees in biomass power plants can be even more polluting than coal power, widely seen as the most polluting form of energy generation, and can also have a devastating impact on wildlife.
And it's not just us talking about it, the Economist have published an interesting article on the subject which you can read here.
UK demand for trees to burn will result in unsustainable pressure on forests, particularly in North America. Biodiversity rich forests there are under strain, with special wildlife such as the swallow-tailed kite and the Venus fly trap already threatened. We’ll have a blog on the dangers to this special wildlife in the coming days.
There is an overwhelming consensus between green groups and businesses that the best way to position the UK as a modern, efficient economy, attracting investment and creating jobs, while cutting carbon emissions and controlling energy prices, is to use the Energy Bill to decarbonise our electricity supply by 2030.
We are calling on the UK Government to use the Energy Bill to create a sustainable biomass sector that leads to genuine emissions reductions.
Please write to your MP today and call on them to only support sustainable biomass.
Ask them to support our vital amendments to the UK Energy Bill to help us ensure that our future energy generation is sustainable and takes the needs of wildlife and the environment into account.
Let us know if your MP replies and why not tell us what else you think the Government should be doing to make our energy system better for the climate and for wildlife, by commenting below?
John Lanchbery, Principal Climate Change Advisor
We are not on course to save the world from climate change. Emissions are not heading downwards so as to ensure an average global temperature rise of less than two degrees, the target agreed by all nations. Instead they are surging upwards towards a likely rise in temperature of between three and five degrees. This is bad news for people and bad news for the natural world; each one degree rise in temperature is likely to result in the loss of about one tenth of all species.
It is no longer just scientists and the environment groups that are warning of such dire consequences. The assessments above come from institutions not best known for their radical stance on environmental issues: the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the United Nations and the European Commission.
In Durban, at the end of 2011, all of the 195 nations of the UN climate change treaty noted ‘with grave concern the significant gap between countries pledges in terms of emissions [reductions] and emission pathways consistent with a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C’. The UN Environmental Programme puts this ‘significant gap’ at between 8,000,000,000 and 13,000,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide - or about twice all emissions from the European Union. It’s a very large gap.
The threat of climate change is thus recognised by almost all of those in a position to do something about it. The problem is that not much is actually being done to address the emissions gap.
So full marks to the European Commission for getting the ball rolling this week.
Yesterday the Commission launched its consultation on shaping international climate policy beyond 2020, as well as before 2020. Today the Commission launched its green paper A 2030 framework for climate and energy policies. After discussions with the European Parliament and governments of member states, this paper will form the basis for much of the EU’s climate and energy policy after 2020. It is very important, not just for EU climate change policy but, hopefully, for showing leadership on tackling climate change to the wider world.
The Commission’s analysis and views about what needs to be done internationally have much in common with those of many environmental groups. However, its views on what actions the EU itself should take after 2020 fall a long way short of what is needed. It’s as if the Commission had not read its own analysis of the science in the international paper. The upshot is that this year and next will see heated debates in Europe about whether to extend the current system of mandatory targets on renewable energy beyond 2020, and whether to make energy efficiency targets binding.
Long term trend in global CO2 emissions (Netherlands EPA / JRC EU)
At the launch of the Green Paper, Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger, said we should wait to see if the recently introduced, non-binding, Energy Efficiency Directive has the desired effect. We hope that it will, but experience suggests sufficient action will not be taken in many countries unless it is made a requirement.
On binding targets for renewables, some countries such as the UK appear to favour a ‘technology neutral’ approach to energy, meaning climate targets would be met in whichever way member states choose. However we will be calling for ambitious and binding targets for renewables, in recognition that they are the only basis on which to build a truly sustainable future energy system. Only by requiring development and deployment of innovative renewables technologies will we be able to drive down their costs to a point where clean, sustainable energy is the natural option.
Sarah Alsbury, RSPB Environmental Management manager
Buildings, or more accurately what goes on inside them, are responsible globally for close to half of human produced greenhouse gas emissions. Although buildings could be seen as half the problem we should not feel disheartened, as there are many readily available solutions for quickly reducing emissions from buildings. Cost effective measures include heating controls, insulation, efficient lighting and appliances that implemented would reduce emissions from buildings by 40% and that is before switching to clean energy sources.
Climate change is already affecting birds and other wildlife in the UK and the Climate Change Act has legislative targets for reducing carbon pollution. So the RSPB has adopted an equivalent target for our own emissions – a 30% reduction between 2010 and 2020. Energy conservation, alongside renewables, is essential for us to achieve this target – and it’s the most cost-effective measure. We are keen to improve our understanding of how our buildings are working and our monitoring of energy consumption. As with habitat management, good monitoring data underpins successful energy conservation.
Pilio, a new spinout company from the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, is helping us understand the energy consumption patterns of our buildings. This knowledge makes it easier to identify energy saving opportunities, to evaluate the success of energy saving actions we take and to monitor our progress in reducing carbon emissions. Pilio prepared an energy audit report of our Lodge headquarters, using half-hourly data from smart meters, sent digitally, to compile a high-resolution profile of our buildings’ energy use. Pilio’s analysis identified some high electricity loads and patterns, which we are now investigating. We are installing smart meters at our larger sites so that we can extend this process.
We’ve also been trialling a Peer Group account in sMeasure (www.smeasure.com), Pilio’s online building energy management software. This lets us bring together energy consumption data across all the sites, comparing and ranking the energy efficiency of our buildings. sMeasure shows us how each building is performing against the weather conditions, enabling us to quickly spot if heating controls are well set or if there might be problems with a boiler. The Pilio team prepared a review on the results from two buildings to demonstrate how we can use the information coming through sMeasure to improve our energy management.
We are at the beginning of a journey to understand and manage the energy consumed across our nature reserve and office buildings. It is a process of learning and doing, which we want to share with our members, visitors and staff to encourage them to take energy saving steps at home. These combined efforts to reduce the emissions from our buildings will contribute towards the energy transformation necessary for environmental protection.
And it'd be great to hear from others who are also working to make their buildings greener
Helen Blenkharn, RSPB Climate Change Policy Officer
Last week we posted a blog on our concerns about proposals for a Severn Barrage that are being discussed by a Government committee. The project would involve a shore-to-shore barrage across the Severn Estuary, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the world-class habitats and wildlife that exist there. Barrages such as this are an engineering feat on a huge scale, and their impacts can extend far beyond their immediate location and for many years after they’ve been built.
What isn’t always clear though, is that the RSPB supports the development of wave and tidal technologies. However, we’d like to see a balanced, step-by-step approach that allows new systems to be tested and monitored, rather than leaping into a project on such a huge scale that it excludes all other options. In the longer term, we think taking this phased approach will mean we can deliver more renewable energy without unacceptable impacts on wildlife.
A barrage isn’t the only way to harness the renewable energy potential of the Severn, or other estuaries around the UK for that matter, and there are a range of more innovative, and potentially less damaging, technologies that need to be considered. For example, tidal lagoons use the same technology but apply them in an arc from a single point on the coastline. If sited appropriately this approach could have far fewer impacts than a barrage – they’re likely to affect the tidal patterns over a smaller area and should be less of a barrier to fish. They’re also smaller in scale so should have less impact on intertidal habitats like mudflats.
There are a range of new wave and tidal devices under development, like Pelamis below which uses the motion of waves to generate electricity. Tidal stream devices are currently dominated by machinery similar to wind turbines but positioned beneath the water. They use the energy in the tides to turn the turbines and can be arranged together in a ‘tidal fence’. You can read a good introduction to the different technologies that are currently under development in a report that RegenSW and partners produced for the Bristol Channel last year.
Pelamis wave device at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney (copyright free)
However, it isn’t all plain sailing. The wave and tidal industry has two big problems and they’re closely linked. One is that it’s incredibly expensive to develop new technologies and roll them out on a commercial scale. They need willing investors, and that’s the second problem - lack of certainty about Government support for different renewable technologies means that investors are very hard to come by. Even if they manage to overcome both of these hurdles there’s still the difficulty of getting access to the electricity grid which can need expensive new infrastructure.
Yet the picture isn’t all doom and gloom. Over the last few weeks and months a number of big announcements suggest that the tide may be turning. Last year the Government announced the launch of two ‘marine energy parks’, one in the south west in Cornwall, and the other in the Pentland Firth and Orkney Waters in the north of Scotland. These areas have shown leadership in driving forward the development of wave and tidal technologies and both have new research and testing facilities, including The Wave Hub in Hayle and the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, which has just been granted £4.1million from the Scottish Government to boost their research.
New funding is also coming on stream. Last week the UK Government announced new funding to help drive forward growth in the UK’s marine energy industry. Two British companies, MeyGen Ltd and Sea Generation Wales Ltd were offered a share of £20 million under the Marine Energy Array Demonstrator scheme. They’ll use the money to test marine devices in arrays out at sea. And the Crown Estate has invited applications for a share of another £20 million to support the construction of projects involving several devices in an array.
In the UK we have a wealth of wave and tidal resources, and some of the best researchers in the world. It a no-brainer that we should support this developing industry and seek to establish the UK as a world leader.
Do you think the Government should be doing more to help new wave and tidal technologies get off the ground and ino the water?