09/09/2013 10:04 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

Scientists Urge EU To Rethink Burning Southern US Forests To Fight Climate Change

A group of over 60 US scientists, including such luminaries as E. O. Wilson, Tom Lovejoy, Gretchen Daily, and Reed Noss, recently sent a letter to EU decision makers urging them to take swift action to "develop and adopt sustainability criteria and carbon accounting requirements to ensure adequate protections for forests and the climate. "

This letter was motivated by the fact that the Southeastern US has become the world's largest exporter of wood pellets for biomass electricity generation. According to the North American Wood Fiber Review, export volumes from the southern US reached an estimated 1.75 million tons in 2012 and are expected to jump to 5.7 million tons in 2015. This explosive growth is being driven by misguided EU energy policies which incorrectly assume that burning wood will lower carbon emissions and help fight climate change. However, recent science has shown that burning trees to produce electricity actually increases carbon emissions compared with fossil fuels for many decades and contributes to other air pollution problems.

Adding insult to injury, Europe's rising consumption of wood pellets is generating greater demand for trees at a time when our southeastern US forests are already under tremendous pressure from the more traditional wood and paper industries. This in turn threatens to further compromise the future ecological integrity of some of our most important and imperiled ecosystems. Despite industry claims, a growing body of evidence suggests that trees rather than wood waste are the primary source of the wood pellets exported to Europe from the Southern US.

For example, the Wall Street Journal recently revealed that Enviva, the South's largest exporter of wood pellets, relies on clearcutting hardwood wetland forests in the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Eco-region at its mill in Ahoskie, North Carolina. The Dogwood Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a series of maps and a report underscoring the threat Enviva's operations at this facility poses to these forests, some of the South's most threatened and valuable forest ecosystems.

The maps and report document the extreme fragmentation and enormous ecological value of the few remaining natural and semi natural forests, much of which are wetlands, that surround Enviva's Ahoskie wood pellet mill. Like many of the forests across the South, the planting of fast-growing industrial pine plantations has replaced many of the natural forests. The remnant natural forests that remain contribute invaluable and often unnoticed services we all depend on.

For instance, in addition to storing substantial amounts of carbon in the standing trees and soil, the slow-growing bottomland hardwood forests buffer natural and human communities from storms, floods, and droughts, maintain water quality of rivers and estuaries, and provide critical habitat for birds, black bear, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and other wildlife. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund, these forests "contain the most diverse assemblage of freshwater wetland communities in North America and perhaps of all temperate forest ecoregions" and "are some of the most biologically important habitats in North America." They also "serve as a resource sink for upland aquatic communities, support[ing] aquatic food webs when flooded and terrestrial food chains during the dry season."

Yet less than one percent of the forests within this sourcing region are permanently protected from logging. Neither the federal government, nor the States of North Carolina or Virginia, sufficiently regulate industrial forestry, leaving the floodgates open to Enviva and other wood pellet manufacturers that are destroying some of the last remaining natural forests in this region.

One would hope that the EU, which many of us view as acting responsibly on environmental issues, might be of some help here. However, a document recently leaked to the European press indicates the EU is siding with pellet manufacturers, as the current draft "sustainability criteria" would do nothing to help protect wetland or other critically important and endangered forests or ensure carbon emission reductions.

Consequently, the US scientist letter sent to EU decision makers concludes as follows:

As scientists and concerned citizens, we thus urge you to reconsider the policies that are driving this demand for wood pellets as a fuel source for generating electricity in Europe. We urge you to take prompt action to remedy the adverse climate and biodiversity impacts of the current misguided policies.

There are far better ways to convert biomass into electricity than clearing and burning our forests. For instance, if strict sustainability standards are adopted and enforced, on a small scale, wood waste or sustainably grown agricultural materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill could be used. Of course, in the end, energy conservation and efficiency combined with real renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, are almost always our best bets.