Dear President Xi, President Biden, Prime Minister Trudeau, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, President von der Leyen, President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida,
We, the undersigned scientists, recognize the work that has been done over recent years towards developing a new Global Biodiversity Framework.
We are writing to express our concern regarding an emerging and growing threat to biodiversity that threatens to undermine these commitments: the large-scale use of forest bioenergy to generate electricity and heat.
We ask you and your countries to end all reliance on forest bioenergy and, over time, to replace it entirely with alternative renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
Up to one million species are at risk of extinction by the end of the century, primarily due to habitat fragmentation and loss. Forests are among the most biodiverse places on the planet, providing habitat for countless species. They are also often referred to as the “lungs of the earth” due to their capacity to absorb nearly a third of all the emissions released by burning fossil fuels.
Troublingly, because it has wrongly been deemed “carbon neutral,” many countries are increasingly relying on forest biomass to meet net zero goals. This is harming our world’s forests when we need them most. Many of the wood pellets burned at power stations for bioenergy are coming from whole trees — not wastes and residues from logging, as the industry claims. For example, nearly half of all biomass burned at the UK’s Drax Power Station comes from whole trees.
Also disturbing is the fact that many of these trees are coming from old, biodiverse and/or climate-critical forests. For example, we know that wood pellets burned in the UK come from clearcuts of mature hardwood forests in the U.S. Southeast’s North American Coastal Plain Biodiversity Hotspot; protected forest ecosystems in the Baltics that are critical habitats for imperilled birds and mammals; and primary forests in Canada, including the boreal forest, one of the world’s last remaining intact forests and a stronghold for global bird populations. Rare species such as the prothonotary warbler, the boreal woodland caribou, and the black stork, are already declining due to the loss and degradation of these forests. Forests will become even more important for biodiversity in the future as vital havens for species impacted by climate change, especially if these species’ ranges shift due to a changing climate.
Wood used for biomass energy is routinely logged using harmful practices like clearcutting. On-the-ground investigations show that two of the world’s largest pellet manufacturers — Enviva and Drax — make pellets from wood clearcut from forests. Clearcutting to provide timber for wood pellets in the EU and UK is even occurring in reserves designed to protect forests and rare and threatened species (e.g. European Union’s Natura 2000 network). Studies in tropical forests have shown that once a forest has been clearcut, it takes decades, if not centuries, before it can regrow to recover its original level of ecosystem productivity and biodiversity. While trees may be replanted after logging for bioenergy, they are sometimes replaced with monoculture plantations, which are not nearly as valuable when it comes to biodiversity or ecosystem productivity. In some places — such as Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul region — monoculture tree plantations have completely taken over existing, natural ecosystems, leading to local extinction of species and other environmental impacts.
The scale of this logging is alarming. For example, in 2019, approximately 5.7 million metric tons of wood pellets were exported from the United States to the UK, requiring the clearing of an area larger than the UK’s New Forest. 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.
Unfortunately, these devastating impacts are only projected to increase as many countries plan to scale up bioenergy use by adding carbon capture and storage or “BECCS” to meet net zero goals. This is despite the serious questions over whether BECCS power would even remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2050 and high risks that all the supply chain emissions and efficiency losses would merely make matters worse. If BECCS did become widely subsidised, countries would have to significantly ramp up planting of bioenergy crops, which would diminish the land available for wildlife and natural ecosystems, and jeopardize global food security. Indeed, some projections estimate that worldwide use of BECCS to achieve net zero would require up to 1.2 billion hectares of land — the equivalent of about 80% of all current global cropland. Converting this much of the world’s land to bioenergy crops would leave little room for wildlife, preventing us from halting and reversing biodiversity loss (and risking global food and water security).
In addition to its impacts on wildlife, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently noted the critical role that forests play in keeping their stored carbon out of the atmosphere. Harvesting for bioenergy seriously harms forests and their ability to sequester and store carbon.
In sum, the goal to halt and reverse the global loss of nature could fail due to the growing pressure on forests from this industry. Logging for bioenergy is accelerating the threat to forests and wildlife while scientists are calling for “transformative change” — not business as usual — if we hope to avert climate disaster and biodiversity collapse. If the global community endeavours to protect 30% of land and seas for nature by 2030, it must also commit to ending reliance on biomass energy. The best thing for the climate and biodiversity is to leave forests standing — and biomass energy does the opposite.
Professor Alexandre Antonelli FRSB
Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Professor Emeritus William Moomaw
Professor Ülo Niinemets
University of Tartu
Professor Emeritus Jay R. Malcolm
University of Toronto
Photo by Karl Adami
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.