Biomass Threatens Global Biodiversity

We are in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, caused mainly by changes in land and sea use, including forest destruction and fragmentation. Since 1970, the planet has lost 60 percent of its vertebrate wildlife populations, leading experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife threatens civilization. Scientists predict this crisis will become even more dire, with the United Nations’ Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services finding that a million species face extinction. This biodiversity crisis is endangering not only wildlife, but humans as well. We depend on biodiversity for the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the medicines we take, and stable weather patterns, among other benefits.

 

Unfortunately, logging for biomass energy is accelerating the threat to forests and wildlife while scientists are calling for “transformative change”—not business as usual—to save our planet and ourselves. As the world’s top importer and subsidizer of biomass, the UK plays a huge role in this destruction.

 

Logging to feed the UK biomass energy market is harming forests around the world, including in the United States, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Canada, further threatening already-imperiled wildlife and ecosystems.

Louisiana black bear

The Louisiana black bear, which lives in areas where logging for biomass occurs in the Southeastern U.S., is barely getting by, with numbers as low as 500.

The Eurasian Pygmy Owl, which is found in Northern and Central Europe where intensive logging for biomass occurs, relies on mature trees and deadwood for nesting. (© Jarkko Jarvinen via Flickr)

Logging for pellets in Canada overlaps with the habitat of endangered species like woodland caribou, putting an additional strain on these imperiled species. (Robert McGouey/Wildlife/Alamy)

Biomass Harms Forest Ecosystems

 

Forests are among the most biodiverse places on the planet, providing homes for countless species.

Iconic wetland forest in the U.S. Southeast

Wood used to produce biomass energy in the UK is logged using destructive and unsustainable practices like clearcutting. On-the-ground investigations into Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer and a top biomass supplier for Drax Power Station, routinely show wood from clearcuts of mature hardwood forests being used to make pellets.

A clearcut forest in the U.S. Southeast used to source trees for the biomass industry.

Clearcutting is even occurring in reserves designed to protect forests and rare and threatened species (e.g., European Union’s Natura 2000 network). Once a forest has been clearcut, it takes decades, if not centuries, before it can regrow to recover its original level of ecosystem productivity.

 

The scale of the impact is alarming. In 2019, approximately 5.33 million metric tons of wood pellets were exported from the United States to the UK to feed just a portion of the UK’s demand for biomass, requiring the clearing of an area larger than the New Forest. Each year, over a million acres of Canadian boreal forest are clearcut, in part to feed biomass demand. And between 2001 and 2019, Estonia’s Natura 2000 areas lost an area more than twice the size of Manhattan, due in part to biomass production.

 

Biomass Harms Wildlife

 

The forests being logged for biomass are some of the most ecologically rich and diverse in the world.

 

The North American Coastal Plain—where most UK biomass imports come from—is a global biodiversity hotspot, providing habitat for hundreds of imperiled species, including the red wolf, cerulean warbler, and Louisiana black bear.

Across its range, Cerulean Warblers are declining at one of the fastest rates of any North American songbird, leading the IUCN to list it as Near Threatened. (© Frode Jacobsen/Shutterstock)

In Canada, logging for biomass is putting an additional strain on imperiled species like the Woodland Caribou, Canada Lynx, and pine marten. It’s also jeopardizing the over 3 billion birds that rely on the boreal for nesting and breeding, many of which are classified as “threatened with extinction by” the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

 

Biomass is likewise adding pressure to log the last remaining old growth forests in Estonia and Latvia, which are critical for biodiversity conservation. These forests have experienced few major human impacts over the years and are thus unique local biodiversity hotspots, supporting species that cannot survive elsewhere like flying squirrels, capercaillie, and black stork. Many of these species are protected under national and/or EU legislation.

Amphibian biodiversity is concentrated in the southeastern U.S. where many species inhabit bottomland hardwood forests, including the Eastern Tiger Salmander (pictured here), the Gopher Frog, and the Three-Lined Salamander.

The Lithuanian government now allows logging in regional and national forest parks to meet biomass demand, despite their protected status, impacting many bird species listed as endangered in Lithuania’s Red Data Book like the Pygmy Owl, White-tailed Eagle, Black Grouse, and White-backed Woodpecker and prompting criticism from the European Commission.

 

Biomass Breaks the UK’s Promises on Biodiversity

 

The UK’s massive biomass electricity subsidies break its promises under the Convention on Biological Diversity requiring the elimination of subsidies harmful to international biodiversity.

 

It’s also hypocritical for the UK to commit to —and lead —the effort to protect at least 30% of its lands and seas by 2030 (an effort known as “30 by 30”) under the Convention on Biological Diversity when, through billions in subsidies for biomass, it is destroying other countries’ abilities to meet these targets.

 

The country’s reliance on biomass for industrial scale electricity generation is also incompatible with its 25-year Environment Plan, which states that the UK will establish “appropriate mechanisms to screen policies and strategies for potential negative environmental effects overseas.”

Resources

Explore these links to discover more about the biodiversity impacts of burning trees for electricity.

The Impacts of UK Biomass Imports on Our Planet's Birdlife

Burning Trees for Power: The Truth about Woody Biomass, Energy & Wildlife

Global Markets for Biomass Energy Are Devastating U.S. Forests

Intensive Logging Impacts in Estonian and Latvian Forests

How Unsustainable Logging in Canada’s Boreal Forest Threatens Indigenous Rights, Wildlife, and the Global Climate

Fern Fact Sheet on How Bioenergy Harms Biodiversity

UK Biomass Imports Threaten Global Biodiversity

Canada’s Growing Wood Pellet Export Industry Threatens Forests, Wildlife and our Climate

Bioenergy Threatens the Heart of North American Wetland Forests

Announcing the World’s 36th Biodiversity Hotspot: The North American Coastal Plain

Threat Map of Southeast U.S. Wood Pellet Plants Exporting to Europe

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About Us

Cut Carbon Not Forests is a campaign to remove subsidies from companies that burn trees for electricity, co-ordinated by a coalition of UK and US-based NGOs. Join us in asking the Government to redirect biomass subsidies to real clean and renewable energy.

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