Energy

Europe importing US trees to keep the lights on

Environmentalists in the United Kingdom are outraged by what has become a growing trend in Europe — countries are importing more wood from the United States in order to meet the EU’s strict renewable energy mandates.

The BBC reports that millions of tons of wood pellets will be shipped into Europe to help keep the lights on in a more environmentally friendly fashion. Environmentalists argue that burning wood pellets wrecks U.S. forests and does nothing to address global warming in the short term.

However, the shift from burning fossil fuels like coal to burning wood is due to the EU’s strict renewable energy mandates that require member states to get one-fifth of their power from renewable energy sources by 2020 — a rule generally supported by environmentalists.

Many trees in the U.S. that are not used by the construction industry are turned into wood pulp or used for generating electricity. The trees for burning are turned into wood chips, and the scale of the operation has environmentalists concerned.

However, the EU told member countries that wood for energy can’t come from forests that won’t be regrown and not to burn trees from sensitive areas such as “wetlands, old-growth forests or areas of wide biodiversity,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

The EU cannot produce enough timber to meet its green goals, so the U.S. logging industry has benefited from Europe’s ambitious renewable energy targets.

“The logging industry around here was dead a few years ago,” Paul Burby, owner of Carolina East Forest Products, told the WSJ. “Now that Europe is using all these pellets, we can barely keep up.”

Wood is considered a ‘carbon-neutral’ fuel source by the EU, and countries are increasingly using this low-cost fuel to meet their green energy targets.

“The bad news behind these figures is that the carbon debt from much of this wood means that CO2 emissions in the real world will actually go up,” Faustine Defossez, the bioenergy policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, told EurActiv.

According to the Economist, wood is the largest renewable energy source used in Europe, making up 38 percent of all non-fossil fuel power generation in Germany alone. Euractiv reports that, on average, 49 percent of renewable energy generated in the EU came from wood and wood waste in 2010.

“There is a very high risk that if you are just driven by short-term simplistic targets and blunt incentives that the environmental results are likely to be very damaging,” an EU official told EurActiv.

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