More than 650 scientists are calling on world leaders to stop burning trees for energy because it destroys valuable habitats for wildlife.
In the build-up to Cop15, the UN summit on biodiversity, they say that countries must urgently stop using forest bioenergy to create heat and electricity, as it undermines international climate and nature goals. Instead, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar should be used, they say.
Bioenergy has been “wrongly considered ‘carbon neutral'”, and many countries are increasingly relying on forest biomass to reach net zero goals, according to the letter, addressed 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 the forests standing – and biomass energy does the opposite,” it says.
The letter says that if global leaders agree to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 at the Cop15 meeting in Montreal, they must also commit to ending dependence on biomass energy. Commitments made at Cop15 and at climate conferences could be undermined if this practice continues, it says.
Prof Alexandre Antonelli, a lead author of the letter and director of science at Kew Gardens, said: “Ensuring energy security is a major societal challenge, but the answer is not to burn our precious forests. Calling this ‘green energy’ is misleading and risks accelerating the global biodiversity crisis.”
By 2030, bioenergy is expected to account for a third of “low carbon” energy, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.
The UK is the top importer of wood pellets for biomass, and in 2019 more than 5 million metric tonnes of them were brought in from the US. Burning biomass is a key part of the UK’s net zero strategy, and has been subsidized by £5.6 billion over the past decade.
Felling trees for bioenergy results in emissions of carbon that would otherwise be locked up in carbon-rich forests. This increases emissions and creates “carbon debt”, which is only paid off decades or even centuries later if the trees grow back, the researchers say.
Burning wood for electricity is also inefficient, releasing relatively 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 finding that it has serious dangers for nature too, with many cases of protected forests being affected.
Canada, Estonia and the USA are the largest suppliers of wood for biomass. Prof William Moomaw, a lead author of the letter from Tufts University in Massachusetts in the US, said: “Our forests are the most biologically diverse places on the planet, providing habitat for countless species. They also absorb almost 30% of all global emissions from burning fossil fuels.
“Clearing for forest bioenergy is degrading the southeastern US coastal forests, a global biodiversity hotspot, the Baltic states of Europe, boreal forests in Canada and illegal logging of protected forest ecosystems in the Carpathians of Eastern Europe. These are all home to irreplaceable rare plant species, mammals and migratory and resident birds.”
Rare species such as protonotar warblers, the boreal forest caribou and the black stork are among those declining as a result of forest degradation.
Elly Pepper, of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Cut Carbon Not Forests Coalition (CCNF), said: “Governments and the bioenergy industry each have a hand on an ax decimating the world’s forests. Continuing to put a fake renewable like biomass energy at the heart of their net zero plans will undermine any global agreement that promises to save nature by 2030.
“The world’s wildlife is already disappearing, and the bioenergy industry is helping to accelerate it by destroying precious forest habitats.”