NORTHAMPTON, N.C. — Here’s a multibillion-dollar question that could help determine the fate of the global climate: If a tree falls in a forest—and then it’s driven to a mill, where it’s chopped and chipped and compressed into wood pellets, which are then driven to a port and shipped across the ocean to be burned for electricity in European power plants—does it warm the planet?
Most scientists and environmentalists say yes: By definition, clear-cutting trees and combusting their carbon emits greenhouse gases that heat up the earth. But policymakers in the U.S. Congress and governments around the world have declared that no, burning wood for power isn’t a climate threat—it’s actually a green climate solution. In Europe, “biomass power,” as it’s technically called, is now counted and subsidized as zero-emissions renewable energy. As a result, European utilities now import million tons of wood from U.S. forests every year—and Europe’s supposedly eco-friendly economy now generates more energy from burning wood than from wind and solar combined.
Biomass power is a fast-growing $50 billion global industry, and it’s not clear whether the climate-conscious administration of President Joe Biden will try to accelerate it, discourage it or ignore it. It’s usually obvious which energy sources will reduce carbon emissions, even when the politics and economics are tricky; everyone agrees that solar and wind are cleaner than coal. But when it comes to power from ground-up trees, there’s still a raging substantive debate about whether it’s a forest-friendly, carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels, or an environmental disaster. Even within the Biden administration, senior officials have taken different sides of that debate.
Biden’s answer will be extremely important, because as odd as it sounds during a clean-tech revolution driven by modern innovations like advanced batteries and smart grids, there’s been a resurgence in the old-fashioned technique of burning wood to produce energy. The idea that setting trees on fire could be carbon-neutral sounds even odder to experts who know that biomass emits more carbon than coal at the smokestack, plus the carbon released by logging, processing logs into vitamin-sized pellets and transporting them overseas. And solar panels can produce 100 times as much power per acre as biomass.
Nevertheless, the global transition away from fossil fuels has sparked a boom in the U.S. wood-pellet industry, which has built 23 mills throughout the South over the past decade, and is relentlessly trying to brand itself as a 21st-century green energy business. Its basic argument is that the carbon released while trees are burning shouldn’t count because it’s eventually offset by the carbon absorbed while other trees are growing. That is also currently the official position of the U.S. government, along with many other governments around the world.
In documentaries, lawsuits and the teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s spirited Twitter feed, critics of the industry have suggested an alternative climate strategy: Let trees grow and absorb carbon, then don’t burn them. Deforestation is a major driver of climate change, and the United Nations climate panel has warned that the world needs to end it worldwide to meet the ambitious Paris emissions targets for 2050.
In February, more than 500 scientists and economists wrote to President Joe Biden and other leaders to warn that converting wood into power is a carbon disaster, a forest destroyer and an absurdly inefficient way to generate energy. Supplying just 2 percent more global energy from biomass, they estimated, would require doubling total global wood harvests. The letter made it clear that any governments that encourage biomass electricity will be ravaging biodiverse forests and damaging humanity’s chances to avert the worst climate catastrophes. “Trees are more valuable alive than dead,” the letter said.
The Trump administration’s industry-friendly Environmental Protection Agency declared biomass power inherently carbon neutral, although it never finalized a rule to that effect. Congress passed a similar decree in an unrelated 2020 budget bill. It’s not yet clear whether Biden will maintain the status quo, or whether he’ll deem biomass power inconsistent with his larger climate push.
Biden’s top climate advisor, Gina McCarthy, was the head of President Barack Obama’s EPA when it flirted with endorsing the industry’s claims of carbon neutrality. But the agency ultimately took no action, and sources close to McCarthy believe her later experience running the anti-biomass Natural Resources Defense Council made her anti-biomass as well. However, Biden’s Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, strongly endorsed biomass power while serving in the same job under Obama, and his deputy chief of staff, Robert Bonnie, recently co-authored an op-ed defending it as a climate solution.
The key player may be Biden’s EPA administrator, Michael Regan, who ran North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality when it approved multiple permits for pellet mills, including an expansion of a sprawling facility here in Northampton County that ships wood to the world’s largest biomass plant, in England. But Regan has also suggested that he’s personally skeptical of biomass power; he helped craft a bold clean energy plan for North Carolina that excluded biomass despite aggressive lobbying by industry interests.
A Biden spokesman declined comment, saying the administration isn’t ready to take a position yet. Unlike wind, solar or energy efficiency, biomass has not been touted as a core element of the president’s vision for a zero-emissions power sector by 2035. Still, the European experience shows that general policies to promote renewables can spark a massive shift to wood-burning if biomass isn’t specifically excluded. Things can change fast.
A VERY GREEN LOGO
The world’s leading pellet manufacturer, Enviva, built its first pellet mill in 2011, after Europe’s renewable energy mandate created lucrative incentives to burn wood. It now operates nine large mills around the Southeast that can debark and crush and process logs into more than 5 million tons of pellets a year, and it has three more mills in development. It also operates five ports to ship its pellets overseas. It has 1,100 employees, not including the army of loggers and truckers who supply its wood. And it’s based in Bethesda, Md., a reflection of its reliance on supportive policy from the federal government.
Enviva runs a far-flung manufacturing operation with an extractive business model, but it tries to cultivate an image as green as Thunberg’s, portraying itself as a mission-driven company creating zero-emissions power to replace dirty fossil fuels. Its motto is: “Displace Coal. Grow More Trees. Fight Climate Change.” Its logo is a green ribbon. Its website opens to an expansive green vista of forested mountains. The company recently launched a sustainability newsletter to trumpet its concern for the planet, and its Twitter account praised Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris agreement as “a critical step.”
Enviva’s chief sustainability officer, Jennifer Jenkins, is a Ph.D. forest scientist and self-described climate activist who worked on bioenergy for Obama’s EPA. She says burning wood can help keep lights on when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing—in other words, when there’s no other renewable electricity available—so that we don’t have to burn coal and natural gas, releasing carbon that’s been buried underground for hundreds of millions of years.
“It’s all about the climate!” Jenkins says. “That’s why we’re in business.”
Enviva’s product would not exist without loggers who clear-cut forests into barren fields with motorized “feller-bunchers,” but the company tries to emphasize that its business is about growing trees as well as killing trees. Enviva requires the landowners who supply its wood to promise to replant their forests, and it uses GPS technology to track and trace every harvest to see if they comply. The company has also committed to help protect 35,000 acres of threatened bottomland hardwood forests and restore 5,000 acres of natural longleaf pine.
It’s a modest gesture—the South has lost more than 87 million acres of longleaf pine, and much of it has been replaced by faster-growing loblolly pine plantations that help feed Enviva’s mills—but it illustrates the company’s eagerness to burnish its image as a steward of the environment. Jenkins wants the public to see the big picture: Southern forests are growing overall, with more trees being planted than cut, and Enviva’s demand for wood helps encourage landowners to keep their forests as forests. The Southeastern U.S. produces one-sixth of the world’s timber, and less than 4 percent of that harvest ends up as pellets.
One problem with making biomass power sound green, Jenkins acknowledges, is that the climate case against it is so simple: Trees are the best available technology for capturing the carbon that’s frying the planet, but that works only while they’re alive and growing. Burning trees, on the other hand, sends all that carbon up in smoke. The industry’s defense relies on more complex variables, like how tree farms sequester carbon compared to natural forests, or how marginal changes in wood markets can affect forested landscapes. But one thing both sides agree on is that it matters what kind of wood ends up in the pellet mills, and what would have happened to that wood otherwise. Policymakers and academics have made all kinds of theoretical assumptions, but it’s not hard to find the reality on the ground.
THE WASTE WOOD ARGUMENT
Danna Smith maneuvers her kayak around a gnarled century-old cypress tree. It has a thick trunk that flares out like bell bottoms above the water line, and stubby branches that look like they’ve weathered more than their share of storms. “Check out that waste wood!” she shouts, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “It’s unmerchantable! What a terrible waste!”
Smith runs the Dogwood Alliance, a forest conservation group in North Carolina that devotes much of its energy to fighting the biomass industry. She was a wild child who grew up around nature—wandering through tall pines, climbing live oaks, making forts out of palmetto fronds—and she’s tired of seeing huggable trees logged and pelletized in Enviva’s mills. She’s especially tired of hearing the industry describe its raw materials as “waste wood” or “low-value” wood while posing as an ally of the forest. The point of her snark was that misshapen trees, hollow trees, undersized trees and other trees that sawmills don’t want for timber can still provide habitat for migratory birds and carbon storage for the planet. They can also be fun to paddle around, even if they don’t fetch the highest prices in the marketplace.
“We shouldn’t be cutting and burning these trees,” she said. “We should be saving them, and they can help save us.”
In the decade since Enviva started manufacturing pellets, the Dogwood Alliance has repeatedly exposed gaps between the company’s sustainability rhetoric and its actions. In 2018, for example, a Dutch TV station working with Dogwood followed some logs from another cypress swamp near the Virginia border back to Enviva’s mill. Smith and I returned to the scene three years later, and while the deforested high ground around the swamp had been recolonized by a thick tangle of grasses, bushes and scrub oak, there wasn’t much growing back in the low-lying wetlands, just some sad-looking stumps poking out of the murky water. Smith warns that if governments keep subsidizing the conversion of trees into energy, enormous swaths of environmentally valuable forests around the world will end up looking like that.
Enviva officials say they no longer accept any cypress wood at their mills, or for that matter any other wood harvested from ecologically sensitive areas. They say they now source only 3 percent of their wood from the increasingly rare bottomland hardwood forests that are such culturally resonant symbols of the South—and only from “non-sensitive” ones. But Jenkins admits the company made some questionable sourcing decisions in the past.
“We weren’t always as aware as we could have been about the consequences of our decisions on the landscape,” Jenkins says. “But we took the criticism seriously.”
Media coverage of the biomass industry has often focused on the transformation of telegenic forests into desolate moonscapes. From a climate perspective, though, what matters most is not what landscapes the wood comes from, but what would have happened to the wood if Enviva hadn’t taken it. The company emphasizes its use of “byproducts” and “residues,” the industry terms for treetops, branches and other leftovers from timber harvests that would have been burned or left to decompose if not for the pellet market. While nature-lovers like Smith may hate jargon like “waste wood” and “unmerchantable,” the idea of replacing coal-fired electricity by burning forest residues that would otherwise have been discarded does at least have potential climate benefits over time, since most of that carbon probably would have ended up in the atmosphere anyway.
But what’s clear from talking to people in North Carolina, and from a few hours standing outside two Enviva mills watching logging trucks come and go, is that much of the wood that gets pelletized isn’t unmerchantable waste wood. It’s pulpwood—whole pine and hardwood trees as well as wood chips that could otherwise be sold to paper mills. It’s not thick or unblemished enough to turn into telephone poles, houses or high-quality furniture, but much of it is fine for Amazon boxes, toilet paper and the fluff inside diapers; one member of Enviva’s sustainability team described it as Walmart wood rather than Gucci wood. I later spent an hour outside a nearby paper mill watching what kind of wood arrived there, and the trucks were bringing in the same kind of logs they brought to Enviva.
That means Enviva isn’t just cleaning up around the edges of the logging industry—it’s increasing demand for wood in the South. And that means additional trees would need to be logged to feed the paper mills that are losing trees to Enviva; the increased demand for pulpwood will require an increased supply of pulpwood. Even if new trees are planted in their place, many studies suggest they will take decades, and in some cases centuries, to absorb enough carbon to “pay back” the carbon debt from burning the older trees. That’s a problem, because scientists don’t believe the world can wait decades, much less centuries, to cut emissions. So at a time when global demand for pulpwood is already rising, the U.S. is already the top supplier, and the world is supposed to be expanding its carbon sinks to avoid climate calamities, the green-sounding technology of bioenergy is pulling even more carbon-rich wood out of U.S. forests.
Timothy Searchinger, a Princeton University climate expert who helped organize the letter from scientists and economists, points out that the reason Americans recycle their paper and cardboard instead of incinerating it is to help save pulpwood. They probably don’t think they’re saving trees so they can be logged, crushed, shipped across the Atlantic and incinerated in Europe.
“There’s no reason to go through the trouble to recycle to save trees and then go ahead and burn the trees,” Searchinger said.
IS RENEWABLE ALWAYS GREEN?
The rapid growth of biomass power over the past decade is in part a story about the unintended consequences of the arcane accounting rules that countries use to track their progress toward global climate goals.
It’s complicated, but the United Nations basically set up global reporting rules that were designed to avoid double-counting emissions, and inadvertently ended up making it easy not to count the emissions at all. In theory, countries were allowed to ignore the emissions from burning wood in power plants as long as they counted the emissions from logging the wood in forests. In practice, countries have let their power plants burn wood without counting the emissions anywhere, which has made biomass seem as climate-friendly as wind or solar.
As a result, European nations with renewable energy mandates have poured money into biomass plants that claim to provide round-the-clock zero-emissions power. The gigantic Drax facility in England, which was the U.K.’s largest coal plant before it switched most of its operations to wood pellets, receives well over $1 billion worth of annual subsidies. For now, the U.S. is merely supplying the wood, but if Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress succeed in enacting similar renewable energy mandates, and wood-burning is still deemed inherently carbon neutral, the U.S. could see a similar boom in biomass power plants.
Biden has set a goal of a net-zero nation by 2050, and Enviva officials suggested that I should look into a recent Princeton study of a net-zero America, because it envisioned scenarios where biomass could produce as much as 5 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050. When I spoke to Eric Larson, a senior research engineer on the study, he cautioned that most of those scenarios assumed the biomass would come from residues. “We’re certainly not talking about using pulpwood,” Larson says. In any case, the study didn’t exactly support the biomass industry: It found that for the next decade, the best way to reduce power-sector emissions would be to build as much wind and solar as possible.
In a way, the whole argument boils down to what we actually need from our future energy sources: Just because biomass is renewable doesn’t mean that it’s better for the climate. Congress did insert language into a budget bill stipulating that biomass should be considered carbon neutral as long as America’s forest stocks are stable or increasing, but that had less to do with climate math or science than the forestry industry’s strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. The anti-biomass documentary Burned features a clip of Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the sponsor of the language, repeating talking points from an industry group’s website almost verbatim on the Senate floor.
Even some defenders of the industry acknowledge that carbon neutrality is a stretch. When I asked Enviva to suggest experts to explain the importance of biomass power, the company suggested I speak to Center for Climate and Energy Solutions president Bob Perciasepe, who was Obama’s deputy EPA administrator and co-authored that pro-biomass op-ed with Biden senior agricultural official Robert Bonnie. Perciasepe did endorse modest amounts of biomass to replace coal, but he also called the industry’s notion that biomass power is inherently carbon neutral “just wrong.”
“I’d say the people who are very enthusiastic should temper their enthusiasm, just as the opponents should probably temper their opposition,” he said.
The enthusiasts acknowledge that the case for biomass power is a lot more complex than the grow-trees-don’t-burn-trees mantra of their opponents. To understand it, they say, you need to understand how trees are grown today, and you can’t miss the forest for the trees.
THE ‘TREES ARE GROWING SOMEWHERE’ THEORY
Six decades ago, Gene Brown’s family stopped growing row crops in the soggy lowlands near Cutawhiskie Creek and started growing loblolly pines. Brown is now 85 years old, and one thing he’s learned is that tree farming is harder than it sounds.
Brown has lost entire tracts of valuable pines to hurricanes, floods, beetle infestations, vole infestations and, he recounts with a sheepish grin, a controlled burn that got out of his control a few years ago. He shows me one field of seedlings he had to replant last year because the initial planting didn’t pan out, and some mature trees he’ll have to harvest early because they’ve been deformed by a disease that makes them look bowlegged.
“Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t,” Brown said. “Even when you do, the margins are tight.”
That’s why he’s thankful for the pellet industry. At the margins, Brown says, having Enviva around to take pulpwood as well as leftovers from higher-quality wood has “improved the incentives for getting rid of undesirable timber,” another way of saying it has made clear-cutting forests more financially attractive. The area’s nine-term Democratic state representative, Michael Wray, says Enviva has helped shore up wood markets depressed by the departure of North Carolina’s furniture industry and the downsizing of another nearby paper mill, ensuring that local forest owners can sell their trees at a profit and replant.
“For a lot of folks around here, their forest is their retirement account,” says Wray, who owns 2,500 acres of woodland. “Enviva helps make sure those trees put money in their pockets.”
Again, what’s good for a timber seller isn’t necessarily good for the climate. Cutting down a tree and burning it clearly releases more carbon than leaving the tree alone; replanting the tree can only pay back the carbon debt in the long run, and an even longer run if the replanted tree is eventually reharvested. But biomass defenders say that focusing on one tree or even one clear-cut is far too narrow a way to think about forest carbon, because as long as the carbon absorbed by forests equals the carbon released from forests, the climate doesn’t care.
For example, Brown has divided his tree farm into 13 tracts, and he usually harvests one tract every three years or so. The rest of the time all 13 tracts are in various states of regrowth, like a plant-based family album. There’s currently an unruly field of 1-foot-tall pines barely a year old, poking their heads above some grasses, an orderly stand of 60-foot-tall pines in their late thirties, awaiting harvest in ruler-straight rows, and just about every stage of life in between.
The Brown plantation is technically a forest that counts as part of the expanding tree cover of the South, but it doesn’t look like a natural forest. It’s got only one dominant species, its underbrush is regularly cleared, and in any given year, less than half of it has pines over a foot thick. And several tracts will always have seedlings or wispy trees that obviously can’t store as much carbon as more mature trees. But just as modern agriculture with genetically modified seeds has increased crop yields to produce more food, modern forestry with trees optimized for fast growth and disease resistance can increase forest yields to produce more wood and store more carbon.
In any case, as long as Brown keeps replanting every time he harvests, his entire farm could keep absorbing approximately the same amount of carbon it releases every year, even if its half-million trees all end up in power plants. The industry argues that this logic should be applied nationally, because even though every year America has far more people, sprawl and demand for forest products, its forest cover has been stable since the early 1900s.
That’s partly because the migration of agriculture to the Midwest allowed reforestation in the Northeast, partly because the rise of cars and tractors reduced the need to cut down forests to grow hay and oats for horses and, ironically, partly because all the carbon we’ve pumped into the atmosphere is stimulating more robust plant growth. That growth is especially robust in single-species pine monocultures that provide us with the paper and wood we desire, even though they aren’t as diverse as the natural forests they replace. Brown rents out his farm to a hunt club, so he has to plant turnips and grains on several acres to attract wildlife. He said the only portion of his farm that still attracts a lot of wildlife without crops is a 4-acre tract of natural oak and holly forest that his wife won’t let him cut.
Still, the bottom line is that forest shrinkage is mostly a tropical phenomenon; U.S. tree cover actually increased about 2 percent from 2007 to 2017. While Enviva’s critics can point to satellite imagery that indicates major reductions in tree cover around its mills, biomass is still a modest segment of the U.S. forestry industry, and Jenkins argues that temporary local reductions are less important than overall regional and national expansions.
“Clearly, we’re not causing a decline in forest carbon,” Jenkins says.
But that isn’t entirely clear, because America’s forest carbon might increase even more if Enviva stopped taking wood out of it. Princeton’s Tim Searchinger suggests an analogy: If America’s companies are profitable overall, does that mean a money-losing company is by definition profitable? I put a similar question to Jenkins: If biomass power is carbon-neutral as long as the overall tree cover is stable, would setting forest fires also be carbon neutral as long as the overall tree cover is stable? “I’m not suggesting you should burn a forest,” she answered.
The key point, Jenkins said, is that burning trees for energy and then replanting them as part of a sustainable cycle is already better than burning coal today, because carbon is constantly being absorbed by living trees to offset the carbon released from dead trees. And in the future, burning and replanting trees could actually reduce emissions if the carbon from the burning is captured at the power plant, a technology known as BECCS—shorthand for “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage”—that the Drax plant in England is already using on a small scale.
But ecologist Mary Booth, founder of the anti-biomass Partnership for Policy Integrity, argues that the only way to increase carbon storage is to reduce forest destruction.
“The whole ‘Trees Are Growing Somewhere’ theory of carbon neutrality violates the laws of physics,” Booth says. “Unless you’re doing something magic, there’s no scenario where cutting and burning trees can deliver a climate benefit in a reasonable period of time. Or even an unreasonable period of time.”
Really, the case for biomass is less about science than economics. The industry argues that by improving markets for trees, it encourages landowners to plant trees instead of row crops or shopping malls, which helps explain why U.S. forest cover is expanding rather than shrinking. The South is America’s “wood basket,” just as the Midwest is America’s breadbasket; the pellet industry helps make forestry more lucrative in the same way corn ethanol mandates help make farming more lucrative. “The more markets there are for forests,” Jenkins says, “the more forests people grow.”
That economic argument has been used to promote not only biomass power but paper grocery bags and wooden buildings. But as Searchinger points out, if increasing demand for wood expands forests, then recycling paper instead of burning it ought to shrink forests, which doesn’t really mesh with anyone’s understanding of how recycling works.
Steven Berry, an economist at Yale, describes the case for biomass power as “bizarre Rube Goldberg economics” and says the models used to justify it are riddled with biased assumptions, logical contradictions and outright errors. “They don’t reflect the real world, and they don’t show up in the top journals,” he says. He suggests that if governments really want to promote the growing of forests, they can simply pay landowners to grow forests.
Brown has kept his tree farm as a tree farm not because the wood markets are so vibrant, but because he doesn’t see any profitable alternatives; his land is too wet for row crops and too remote to sell to developers. The decisions that Enviva can affect at the margins are not whether to have a forest—a Walmart will always be a more lucrative use of the land—but whether to cut down the forest.
In fact, one frequent refrain in North Carolina forestry is that rotations are getting shorter. Tree farmers are cutting saw timber after 30 instead of 40 years, and sometimes even harvesting pulpwood after 15 years instead of thinning their forests and waiting for higher-value harvests. It’s not clear how much Enviva’s demand for pulpwood is contributing to that trend, but it helps shift the financial calculus toward cutting down trees before they maximize their carbon storage.
Enviva took me to see one clear-cut outside rural Littleton, where 10 laborers were using hand tools to replant 40,000 seedlings per day. Forestry consultant Michael Hughes, who was overseeing the operation, said the field would have neat rows of pines within 15 years, when the owner would probably cut them down again for pulpwood and pellets.
“I’m old school. I’d rather stretch it out. But the market isn’t working that way these days,” Hughes said. “People are cutting early.”
WHAT DO BIDEN’S PEOPLE REALLY THINK?
U.S. pellet mills have often been located in predominantly minority communities, which has added an environmental justice angle to the politics of biomass. A local activist named Belinda Joyner, who is Black, once confronted a Black state regulator about Enviva’s expansion of the Northampton mill. Joyner told the regulator his agency was ignoring a minority community’s complaints about truck traffic and dust and a debarker that rattled at night as if someone had left a quarter in the dryer. The regulator said he was sympathetic, but as long as Enviva complied with air quality laws, he had no choice but to issue the permit.
The story is relevant because that regulator was Michael Regan, who was confirmed earlier this month as Biden’s EPA chief, and has pledged to be bold about environmental justice as well as climate action.
The environmental justice case against the pellet industry has never gained much traction; no mill has ever been denied a permit, and local Black leaders told me the Northampton mill is popular with their constituents as a source of jobs and a buyer of wood. But Regan helped deliver a serious slapdown to the industry on climate grounds. He helped draft Governor Roy Cooper’s plan to cut North Carolina’s greenhouse gas emissions 70 percent, and, despite heavy lobbying from Enviva and other influential interests, biomass was pointedly omitted. The plan noted that “the wood pellet industry … does not advance North Carolina’s clean energy economy,” and concluded that “biomass production releases carbon into the atmosphere at a faster pace than if those forests were left intact.”
In politics, everyone claims to be on the side of the forests. Even President Donald Trump, who rejected the Paris accord and will never be mistaken for the Lorax, endorsed a global campaign to plant a trillion trees, although in a debate with Biden he accidentally downsized it to a billion trees. The industry’s position is that wood pellets actually help expand forests, by making it more lucrative for the private landowners who control most U.S. forest land to stay in the forestry business. The opponents argue that what wood pellets make more lucrative is deforestation.
The fate of the climate depends on the fate of the world’s forests, and one thing that’s clear is that they’re going to come under extraordinary pressure over the next several decades. As the global population rises above 9 billion, people are going to use a lot more toilet paper, build a lot more houses and order a lot more packages online. They’ll also need more food, which will require more acreage for agriculture—and agricultural expansion is the largest driver of deforestation. And as hundreds of millions of people join the middle class in countries like India and China, larger portions of their diets will consist of meat, which is the most land-intensive food; the World Resources Institute projects that unless current trends in population or meat-eating change, the world will have to deforest a land mass nearly twice the size of India by 2050.
That’s a massive problem, because every scenario the U.N. has laid out for avoiding the worst climate nightmares involves not only an end to deforestation but widespread reforestation. There are many innovative experiments underway to try to alleviate the problem by producing more food with less land, from fake meat to high-density fish farms, as well as new efforts to make agriculture carbon-friendlier through approaches like regenerative grazing. But the world also needs to be careful not to make the problem worse, which is why it matters so much whether forests would be bigger or smaller without a pellet industry.
The EPA has been wrestling with that question since Obama’s second term. A draft policy memo in November 2014—written by Janet McCabe, who then ran the agency’s air office, and is now Biden’s nominee for deputy EPA administrator—suggested that biomass power would be treated as carbon-neutral as long as the wood came from “sustainably managed lands.” But the agency’s independent science board objected, and the issue ended up getting punted to the Trump administration. The Trump EPA then publicly endorsed carbon neutrality for biomass in 2018 under Administrator Scott Pruitt, but it never completed a formal rule after Pruitt resigned under fire, and the issue ended up getting punted to the Biden administration.
The industry’s critics are confident that McCarthy and Regan are on their side, but they’re worried about Vilsack and the Agriculture Department, which includes the U.S. Forest Service; Mary Booth told me she recently emailed McCarthy an old blog post she wrote attacking Vilsack about biomass. What they’re really worried about is inertia, because forestry interests have a lot of clout in Washington, and stipulating that biomass is carbon-neutral makes emissions reductions much easier to achieve on paper. The European experience has shown that when biomass is considered carbon-neutral in a carbon-constrained economy, power plants start burning a lot of biomass.
The European experience has also shown the power of inertia. Many European politicians and regulators now express second thoughts about the blanket exemptions they gave biomass in the past, but in most countries those exemptions have proved quite resilient. A year ago, I happened to watch a legislative hearing about biomass in the Danish parliament; afterward, leaders from the left-leaning governing party and the center-right opposition both told me they were shocked by the evidence that wood-burning was a fake climate solution, and determined to push Denmark toward a different renewable path. So far, though, they haven’t. Denmark’s plan to reach its Paris goals depends heavily on biomass, eventually with carbon capture and storage; ditching biomass would require some excruciating political choices.
Last month, though, the Netherlands took a step toward making those kinds of choices, when its legislature voted to stop subsidizing biomass plants unless the executive branch agrees to start phasing out the nation’s biomass program. Dutch polls show that the public is overwhelmingly opposed to wood-burning; Smith of the Dogwood Alliance says the tide began turning there after that TV station exposed the clear-cut she showed me near the Virginia border.
There hasn’t been that kind of backlash in the U.S., which is still mostly just a supplier for biomass plants abroad. To the extent there’s any debate about the issue in Washington, it’s a familiar clash between environmental interests who want to protect trees from logging and economic interests who note that Americans depend on working forests in their daily lives. It’s true that forestry is a big industry, says Tufts environmental policy professor William Moomaw, but those forests are going to need to do less economic work if Biden is going to have any hope of reaching his emissions goals. They need to be carbon negative, not just carbon neutral—and they need to get that way fast.
“Otherwise, we’re dead meat,” Moomaw says. “We can’t say, ‘Oh, we can sacrifice forest over here, because it’s growing over there. We need to stop sacrificing forest.”