Saturday, January 23, 2021

'Carbon-neutrality is a fairy tale': how the race for renewables is burning Europe's forests

Kalev Järvik stands on a bald patch of land in the heart of Estonia’s Haanja nature reserve and remembers when he could walk straight from one side of the reserve to the other under a canopy of trees.

Järvik has lived in the Haanja uplands in the southern county of Võru for more than 10 years. His closeness to the forest has shaped his life as a carpenter and the fortunes of the surrounding villages, with their handicraft traditions – a substitute for farming on the poor arable land. Upcountry, travel literature promotes the region to city dwellers, promising its ancient woodlands as a place to rest and reinvigorate the mind.

But in 2015, the Estonian government allowed what is known as clear-cutting in some parts of the Haanja nature reserve. The practice involves stripping entire areas of mature forest and removing whole tree trunks.

This relaxation of the logging rules came as international demand for Estonian wood soared – not just for furniture or construction, but because of an unlikely culprit: Europe’s renewable energy policies.

“Sometimes I can’t bear to go outside,” Järvik says, standing by the stumps left on land stripped by the logging company Valga Puu. The firm is a subsidiary of Graanul Invest Group, Europe’s biggest producer of the wood pellets which are burned on an industrial scale as biomass for heat and light in many of Europe’s former coal-fired power stations.

The days Järvik is spared the sound of harvesters have become rare. “You don’t want to leave home, because the landscape has become so impassable, it leaves you feeling anguished. But still the noise comes.”

Forests cover 2m hectares or more than half of Estonia. Around 380,000 hectares (939,000 acres) of that, including the Haanja nature reserve, fall under the EU’s Natura 2000 network, which is designed to protect Europe’s forests and offer a haven to rare and threatened species. Haanja is home to 29 protected species, including the black stork, the lesser-spotted eagle and the corncrake.

Natura-protected zones are managed under the legally binding provisions of the 1979 EU birds directive and the 1992 habitats directive. But logging is governed by domestic laws, and Estonia permits it as long as it does not damage bogs and other special habitats, or fall within bird mating seasons.

Campaigners say that by allowing intensive clear-cutting in Natura 2000 sites, Estonia is in breach of the habitats directive and undermining the EU’s climate goals.

Siim Kuresoo of the non-profit Estonian Fund for Nature (ELF) doesn’t just blame the Estonian government. He says there is a direct connection between the subsidised growth in the biomass industry encouraged by EU renewable energy policies and the acceleration of unsustainable Baltic tree-felling.

“There is clear evidence that the intensification of logging is at least partly driven by higher demand for biomass for heat and power,” says a report co-authored by Kuresoo for the ELF and the Latvian Ornithological Society. “Given that over half of Estonia’s and Latvia’s wood pellet exports in 2019 went to Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK, ‘green energy’ use in those three countries contributes directly to increased logging in the two Baltic states.”

The Council of Estonian Environmental NGOs (EKO), of which the ELF is a member, has made a complaint to the European commission alleging “systematic” breaches by Estonia of its forest conservation obligations.

Across Estonia, between 2001 and 2019, Natura 2000 areas lost more than 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of forest cover, an area more than twice the size of Manhattan. The last five years account for 80% of that loss. Further alterations to rules in other Estonian national parks are planned.

This acceleration appears to be taking a toll on bird species like the black grouse, woodlark and others. Woodland birds are declining at a rate of 50,000 breeding pairs a year, according to national records.

The clearances are also damaging the ability of Baltic forests to store carbon, and could be undermining climate goals by reducing the chance for Estonia and Latvia to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

In a country where the overwhelming majority of people say they regard nature as sacred, logging has led to protests or what the Estonian media calls the “forest war”. Residents of Saku, a small town 16 miles south of Tallinn, successfully fought to save an area of forest that was scheduled to be cut down this year by RMK, the state forest management company, which manages around half of Estonian forests.

“We convert our trees into pellets and sell them to energy plants in your countries,” says Ivar Raig, one of the Saku campaigners. “This is considered to be sustainable, but we suffer.”

Sustainability goes to the heart of the European renewable energy debate. The drive to replace coal, one of the world’s biggest sources of carbon emissions, with cleaner sources of power, is a top priority in the fight against climate change globally.

A switch to burning wood in the form of pellets appears to offer a simple and in theory carbon-neutral alternative to coal-fired power stations because trees take up carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. As long as the burned trees are replaced with new plantings, there is no net addition to the stock of carbon in the atmosphere.

However, that process of carbon take-up can take many decades. And in the furnace, burning wood releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than burning gas, oil, or even coal. By accelerating carbon dioxide emissions in the short term, burning wood for electricity could be fatal for states’ ability to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global heating to well below 2C by 2050.

Demand for woody biomass or energy from wood as an alternative to coal in power stations took off from 2009, when the first EU renewable energy directive obliged member states to source 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020 and classified biomass energy as carbon-neutral.

A flaw in the legislation meant that woody biomass was fully categorised as renewable, even if it came not just from wood residues or waste, but from whole trees. This meant that companies could directly harvest forests for pellets – rather than making pellets from the by-products of timber cut for other uses – in the name of sustainable forest management.

As the EU moved in 2018 to double the use of renewable energy by 2030, scientists warned the European Parliament that this loophole in the sustainability criteria of the revised EU legislation would accelerate the climate crisis and devastate mature forests. But against the competing interests of the multibillion euro biomass lobby, it went unamended.

Almost all European countries have recorded an increase in logging for energy. Nearly a quarter of the trees harvested in the EU in 2019 were for energy, up from 17% in 2000.

Biomass, of which wood from forests is the main source, now makes up almost 60% of the EU’s renewable energy supply, more than solar and wind combined, and a vast cross-border industry has emerged to meet this demand.

Taxpayer subsidies are driving much of the growth in this trade. Between 2008 and 2018, subsidies for biomass, of which wood is the main source, among 27 European nations increased by 143%. In the UK, government support for biomass projects is expected to total more than £13bn by 2027 – the date at which current subsidy agreements expire, according to the climate thinktank Ember.

Every month tens of thousands of tonnes of wood pellets leave the port of Riga to cross the North Sea on Graanul Invest’s vessel, the MV Imavere. Much of this cargo is bound for the port of Immingham, where it is transported to UK power stations including Drax, which has converted four of its six units from coal to biomass since 2013 and is now the world’s largest biomass burning plant. The UK accounts for more than a third of Graanul’s annual revenue. Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy are also target markets.

But electricity production from wood pellets would not be financially sustainable without public subsidies: the British government paid Drax the equivalent of €2.4m (£2.1m) a day in 2019. Drax will have received more than €11.2bn (£10bn) from the UK government since its conversion to biomass in 2012 until subsidies run out in 2027, researchers from the Ember have calculated.

The UK is now the biggest subsidiser of bioenergy in Europe, spending more than £1.9bn in 2019 primarily to pay for burning imported wood at Drax, according to new research by the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) and Cut Carbon Not Forests. Britain is no longer bound by EU renewable energy targets post-Brexit but has set a new target of cutting emissions by 68% by 2030 and is committed to the EU goal of net-zero carbon by 2050.

Other European governments are following suit. In the Netherlands, the government has promised energy companies RWE, Uniper and Onyx (formerly Engie) more than €3.5bn in subsidies to use biomass, making the country one of the biggest importers of wood pellets in Europe. Campaigners are anxiously watching Germany, where Onyx Power, a subsidiary of the US hedge fund Riverstone, is examining the possibility of converting coal plants to biomass.

“Biomass only exists at the scale that it does because of subsidies,” says Duncan Brack, associate fellow at the London-based thinktank Chatham House. “We’re effectively paying to increase carbon emissions in the atmosphere, which is an absurd use of public money.

China's 2020 coal output rises to highest since 2015, undermining climate pledges

China's coal output rose last year to its highest since 2015, despite Beijing's climate change pledge to reduce consumption of the dirty fossil fuel and months of disruption at major coal mining hubs.

The world's biggest coal miner and consumer produced 3.84 billion tonnes of coal in 2020, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed on Monday.

China's coal output dropped after reaching a peak of 3.97 billion tonnes in 2013, as Beijing axed excessive mining capacity and promoted clean energy consumption. But production is rising amid surging industrial demand and an unofficial restriction on coal imports aimed at shoring up the domestic mining industry.

For December alone, coal output was 351.89 million tonnes, up 3.2% from the same month last year, and up from 347.27 million tonnes in November.

China's coal mining sector was one of the first industries to resume operations when COVID travel restrictions were gradually relaxed, as Beijing wanted to ensure adequate fuel supplies once the country emerged from the lockdown enforced to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.

However, production was partially disrupted in Inner Mongolia, China's top coal mining region by output, as the region in March launched an anti-corruption campaign to probe malpractice related to coal resource development over the past 20 years.

Output finally rebounded from multi-month lows in September, as coal import restrictions and surging electricity demand intensified a supply crunch at the onset of the winter heating season.

To stabilise the sky-rocketing coal prices, which hit their highest level since late 2011, Beijing urged miners last month to boost output.

Earlier this month, China's energy administration approved six coal mining projects, with projected combined annual production of 15.3 million tonnes, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Climate challenge needs a very different approach


Let’s get real. Climate is a man-made problem. But Biden’s climate alarmism is almost entirely wrong. Asking people to spend $1500 every year is unsustainable when surveys show that a majority are unwilling to spend even $24 a year on climate. And policies like Paris will fix little at a high cost.

Biden is right to highlight the problem, but he needs a smarter way forward.

The climate alarm is poorly founded. Take hurricanes. Last year, you undoubtedly heard that global warming made hurricanes “record-setting”. Actually, 2020 was above-average in the North Atlantic because of the natural La Nina phenomenon, and only record-setting in that satellites could spot more storms. When measured by total hurricane damage potential, the 2020 North Atlantic was not even in the top 10. And almost everywhere else on the planet, hurricanes were far below average, including the Pacific, southern and northern hemispheres. Globally, 2020 ranked as one of the weakest hurricane years in the 40-year satellite record.

We think 2020 was big on hurricanes because we read carefully curated stories of where and when they hit, but we didn’t see stories about the many more places and times they did not. This dynamic is why widespread climate alarm diverges from the decades of climate-economic research that shows the total impact of climate change is negative but manageable.

The UN Climate Panel, the gold standard of climate science, tells us the total impact of climate change in the 2070s is equivalent to an average income reduction of 0.2 to 2 per cent. Since the UN also expects everyone to be 3.63 times richer, global warming means we will only be 3.56 times as rich. That is a problem, but not Biden’s existential threat.

Yet, rejoining the Paris agreement will solve very little at a high cost. By the UN’s estimates, if all nations live up to all their promises (including Barack Obama’s promises for the US), it will cut so little, it will reduce global temperature by less than 0.05C by 2100.

And Paris is costly, because it forces economies to use less or more expensive energy. Across many studies, the drag to the economies is $US1-2 trillion in lost GDP every year after 2030. While achieving some good, each dollar of cost will only deliver about 11 cents of long-run climate benefits.

While politicians also talk about job benefits, economic research shows that green spending will predictably increase green jobs. But because subsidies will be paid by higher taxes on the rest of the economy, an equal number of jobs will disappear elsewhere.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson excitedly talks about five million new green jobs, while his advisers now warn him that 10 million other jobs could be at risk.

Many rich countries are now promising to make their economies carbon-neutral by 2050. There is only one nation that has done an independent cost estimate of net-zero — New Zealand. It found that the average best-case cost is 16 per cent of GDP. This translates to more than $US5 trillion per year by mid-century for the US, and similarly exorbitant costs for other nations. Such costs make these policies unsustainable in the long run.

Moreover, rich countries can achieve very little by themselves. Imagine if the entire rich world stopped all its CO2 emissions today and never bounced back. This would be utterly devastating — COVID-19 lockdowns only reduced emissions by less than 10 per cent. Yet, this would reduce global warming by the end of the century by 0.4C. This is because three-quarters of the 21st century emissions will come from the rest of the world — especially China, India, Africa and Latin America. They are unlikely to accept slower economic growth to address a 2 per cent problem 50 years from now.

Fortunately, there is a much smarter way forward: investing a lot more in green energy research and development. As Bill Gates says, “We’re short about two dozen great innovations” to fix climate. If we could innovate the price of green energy below fossil fuels, it wouldn’t just be rich, well-meaning first-worlders cutting a bit of emissions. Everyone would switch, eventually fixing climate change.

The cost would be much lower, the policies much more likely to be implemented — and, fortunately, it is one of the promises Biden has made.

Indeed, at the sidelines of the Paris summit, more than 20 countries, including Australia, committed to double their clean energy R&D investment until 2020. Most countries have not delivered, but doing so for both the US and Australia would be a much more effective, cheaper and more sustainable strategy.

Bjorn Lomborg is President of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book is False Alarm.

What is green hydrogen, how is it made and will it be the fuel of the future?

Abundant, cheap and clean-burning, hydrogen has long been described as the fuel of the future.

That future has never quite materialised, however, due to hydrogen's disadvantages. It's difficult to transport, it can make metal brittle and it's 20 times more explosive than petrol.

But in recent years, "green hydrogen" — hydrogen made without fossil fuels — has been identified as the clean energy source that could help bring the world to net-zero emissions.

Billions of dollars of investment capital and taxpayer support has flowed into the industry, and company share prices have soared.

This has accelerated in recent months, driven by the rising adoption of zero-emission vehicles, a deadline set by many countries to go carbon-free by 2050 and US President Joe Biden's support for clean energy.

The European Union plans to scale up renewable hydrogen projects and invest a cumulative amount of 470 billion euros ($740 billion) by 2050.

In November, Western Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest announced plans to invest billions of dollars in green hydrogen to grow his new energy business.

In the first of the ABC Boyer lectures on Friday, he focused on the potential for Australia to produce "green steel", which uses green hydrogen in place of fossil fuels to power the iron ore blast furnaces.

"The immediate and multiplier impact on the Australian economy, if we get this right, could be nothing short of nation-building," he said in the lecture.

So what is green hydrogen? How can it be used? And is the hype a lot of hot air?

Hydrogen is the universe's most abundant element, but here on Earth it doesn't appear pure in nature, and requires energy to separate.

The most common technique is to extract hydrogen from water, which is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen (hence H2O).

Doing this is fairly simple. You can use heat and chemical reactions to release hydrogen from organic materials such as fossil fuels.

But this is enormously polluting. Worldwide hydrogen production is responsible for CO2 emissions equivalent to that of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined. (The hydrogen is mostly used in the oil refining industry and to produce ammonia fertilisers.)

There is a cleaner way of getting hydrogen: a strong electrical current passed through a tank of water splits the molecule into its two constituent elements. This is called electrolysis.

Hydrogen atoms form hydrogen molecules (H2) and oxygen molecules pair up too. Each can then be bottled up (more on that later).

If the electricity is generated from renewable sources such as solar or wind, production of hydrogen in this way emits no greenhouse gasses.

This is how we come to all the different shades of hydrogen:

brown hydrogen is produced using coal where the emissions are released to the air

grey hydrogen is produced from natural gas where the associated emissions are released to the air

blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas, where the emissions are captured using carbon capture and storage

green hydrogen is produced from electrolysis powered by renewable electricity.




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