In some ways, Europe – which has imposed a carbon cap-and-trade market, imposed stringent energy efficiency and moved aggressively to develop clean energy sources such as wind - seems to be at the forefront of the fight against climate change.
But as an investigative project by the website Climate Central reveals, there's a dark side to the story as well. Thanks to a regulatory loophole that treats wood as a carbon-neutral energy source, the same as more expensive solar panels or wind turbines, and grants generous subsidies to users, power plants in Europe and the United States increasingly have turned to burning wood pellets for fuel.
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As a result, forests, including some in the United States, are being chopped down to meet the surge in demand, which deprives the planet of a natural source of carbon sequestration. And while wood might be considered renewable, is isn't necessarily a clean energy source. To the contrary, Climate Central reports, the burning of wood for energy actually is heating the atmosphere even more rapidly than coal.
The ill-conceived European policy is based on the idea that pollution released directly by burning wood doesn't contribute to climate change, because the carbon will be re-absorbed by trees that are grown as replacements. That assumption, Climate Central reports, is contrary to current climate science.
"It ignores the decades it can take for a replacement forest to grow to be as big as one that was chopped down for energy - or the possibility that it won't regrow at all," Climate Central reporter John Upton writes. "The assumption also ignores the loss of a tree's ability to absorb carbon dioxide after it gets cut down, pelletized and vaporized."
Wood quietly has emerged as the biggest single source of "renewable" energy in Europe, accounting for nearly half of the total. Countries last year burned pellets equivalent to 620 million barrels of oil.
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Because of the flawed regulations, energy plants are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies for burning wood, in addition to avoiding tens of millions of dollars in fines that polluters normally would have to pay.
The forestry industry also is making out handsomely, Climate Central reports. It cited one company that made nearly $700 million in profits in 2014 - $550 million of which came from British green-energy subsidies.
As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, the United States has become the world's biggest exporter of wood pellets, with shipments doubling from 2 million tons in 2012 to 4.4 million tons last year.