When the EU adopted its 2009 Renewable Energy Directive — a plan to reach 20% renewable energy by 2020 to help the bloc adhere to the world’s first climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol — it followed a long tradition of giving wood-fired power plants the same emissions-free status as wind and solar. As a result, coal-dependent countries like Britain and Germany began heavily subsidizing wood burning.
It takes at least 82 years for a biomass plant’s regrown forests to lower that facility’s carbon footprint to that of a coal plant. And that’s the best-case scenario outlined by a peer-reviewed emissions calculator tool created by Natural Resources Canada, a government agency. Even after 100 years, wood-fired electricity could not close the emissions gap with a natural gas plant, the calculator data show.
The reporting metric also allowed Europe to credit its existing wood-burning operations as renewable energy, effectively juicing its green energy numbers to make the continent look much more ecologically balanced than it actually was.
Biomass had an extra appeal that has become a more prominent industry talking point in recent years. Unlike wind and solar, which can operate sporadically, wood-fired plants can run as long as there’s something to burn, providing the reliable baseload electricity we expect from fossil fuels.
The EU embraced wood at the same time the U.S. leaned into the Northeast’s hydraulic fracturing boom and replaced its coal plants with cheap and abundant natural gas. This presented an opportunity for states across the forested South to revive the timber industry, then on the decline, by welcoming companies that would feed Europe’s growing appetite for pellets.
In the U.K., the 4,000-megawatt Drax Power Station — a massive coal- and wood-burning complex in northeastern England — supplies about 7% of the U.K.’s electricity with millions of tons of wood, much of which comes from forests in the American South.
This week, Drax unveiled plans to spend over $53 million to start work on new carbon capture machines that the company said will catch and store 8 million metric tons of CO₂ per year. Already, the company calls its plant the “largest decarbonization project in Europe” because it had swapped much of its coal-fired production for wood.
The biomass industry is set to experience its fastest growth in East Asia during the second half of this decade. A report published last year found South Korea was so heavily subsidizing biomass plants that the industry was crowding wind and solar out of the power market. Japan, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with plans to burn residues from palm oil for electricity, threatening even further deforestation.
In a February 2021 letter addressed to Biden, European, British, Japanese and Korean leaders, more than 500 scientists urged them “not to undermine both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning trees” and to “end subsidies and other incentives that today exist for the burning of wood.”
“Trees are more valuable alive than dead both for climate and for biodiversity,” the letter read. “To meet future net zero emission goals, your governments should work to preserve and restore forests and not to burn them.”