The Truth behind Biomass “Green Energy”

If you are still reading my blogs, by now you know I am passionate about sustainability. It is a difficult subject to tackle because it is so vast, and it requires not only the actions of ourselves as individuals, but everyone; especially governments. The UN released the 17 sustainability goals back in 2015 to envision:

“a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”

But how well are governments actually doing at tackling this issue?

What most people do not know is that most renewables in Europe come from organic sources such as wood, crops, organic waste (68% Biomass as of 2017). As you read this blog, trees and crops are being chopped down and burned for energy in the name of climate action.

The importance of trees

Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they are growing and transfer this into oxygen. Small trees do not absorb that much Carbon Dioxide (CO2) but after 20 years they can absorb more than 20 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. When a tree reaches the age of 80 it has removed more than 1000 kilos of carbon dioxide from the air. When a tree dies naturally it stores this CO2 in its wood and is then converted into a breeding ground for forests to thrive.

What happens to the carbon if we harvest wood from forests?

If the wood is used for houses or furniture etc, the carbon is locked in this product. This means CO2 is not released into the atmosphere.

However, if we burn the wood for energy, this carbon dioxide is immediately released into the atmosphere, even though it has taken decades for the tree to store this CO2.

Over the past 200 years, the number of trees on Earth could not process the amount of carbon dioxide we were releasing into the atmosphere which has been causing the planet to warm up by over 1 degree [1].

So why have we now decided to chop down more trees as a way of being “sustainable”?

Instinctively, I would say this cannot be sustainable. We need trees now more than ever.

“Trees are more valuable alive than dead.”

By cutting down our trees, it releases more carbon dioxide, and simultaneously, less carbon dioxide will be absorbed from the atmosphere. This seems like a lose-lose.

This holds true, even if we harvest the same number of trees that are planted each year.

The European Renewable Energy Directive in 2009 went against the very strong advice of over 800 scientists to state “bioenergy” as a supported green, zero-carbon form of energy, which means the tree-burning industry receives billions of Euros in public subsidies each year. As a result, European utilities now import tons of wood from U.S. forests every year—and Europe’s supposedly eco-friendly economy now generates more energy from burning wood than from wind and solar combined. The gigantic Drax facility in England, which was the U.K.’s largest coal plant before it switched most of its operations to wood pellets, receives well over $1 billion worth of annual subsidies [2] [4].

Biomass Life Cycle (

The idea that setting trees on fire could be carbon-neutral sounds even odder to experts who know that biomass emits more carbon than coal at the smokestack, plus the carbon released by logging, processing logs into vitamin-sized pellets and transporting them overseas. (GRUNWALD, 2021) [2]. In reality, it destroys precious natural habitats and spews more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Biomass is not only affecting the environment but people’s livelihoods.

Nawaro Bioenergie Park is one of the largest biomass plants in the world. It uses 1000 tonnes of corn everyday, which is the equivalent of feeding 4 million people! [3] The impact of this plant goes beyond the obvious consequences. Small scale farms in the area are struggling. Energy companies are buying out land and land prices have gone up 55% in 6 years. Grazing companies are struggling due to the competition of corn and what it represents. Although Germany is a big producer of corn, they have now become a net importer of corn for the first time in 25 years. The corn grown is used for industrial reasons, where in places like Bavaria 90% of natural grassland have been lost. This is happening across the world.

Biomass Crop Production (National Geographic)

Where did Biomass come from and how is it still a thriving industry?

To find out how Biomass has re-boomed, we need to look back to the industrial revolution. One invention to come from this was the automated printing press, which advanced the speed and efficiency of printing by several orders of magnitude while providing huge benefits to society. However, it also heavily increased the demand for paper which by then was mostly being made from trees. That meant that owning a paper mill became a very profitable business. One of the coupling beneficiaries of that were the sawmills.

Sawmills had always used their sawdust waste to burn and heat their own workshops and homes, but as the demand increased, an opportunity was spotted for easy, extra cash by pressing their dust into wood pellets to sell off as a heating material to homes in the surrounding area. This was essentially the birth of the biomass industry.

However, as decades rolled on developers moved into the market and started buying off land to make way for tree plantations specifically for fast harvesting and conversion into wood pellet production in brand new plants, that eventually found their way into the grid generators for the country. [4]

It was not all great, this type of energy became expensive, and the biomass industry began to slow down at the end of the 1990’s.

Meanwhile with the new EU law implemented in 2009 across Europe, wood consumption was accelerated. Between the year 2000 and 2017 the consumption more than doubled, which posed the EU with a problem because most of European forestry is pretty heavily protected. The EU started looking for a way to make a deficit of wood fuel production that the CO2 reduction data needed in order to keep the United Nations happy. This is where the US comes back into play. Where they began to happily ship their wood pellets across the Atlantic in vast quantities.

This began happening all over the world. Michelle Connolly who directs the British Columbia based company Conservation North said:

International demand for wood pellets is driving increased logging in British Columbia forests; including the last remnant patches of old-growth inland rainforest, a globally rare ecosystem.”

Michelle Connolly – BC Conservation North.
Caycuse Before and After Logging

Many wood pellet companies claim they make their “green biomass” by churning out pellets from garbage wood, food waste and other recyclable materials. However, many of these are lying. Truckloads of chopped logs are loaded and driven to the factories where they meet their end. According to the study, around half of forest wood used for bioenergy is stemwood (wood from the main part of a tree).

In February 2021, more than 500 scientists and economists wrote to President Joe Biden and other leaders to warn that:

“converting wood into power is a carbon disaster, a forest destroyer and an absurdly inefficient way to generate energy”

US-based Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) is an organisation that has been fighting international legal loopholes on Biomass for many years. Mary Booth, the director of the organisation said in an interview in 2020:

“the big lie that burning forests for fuel is carbon neutral has taken hold across the world, signalling capture of renewable energy policy-making by the industrial forestry complex. We hope the courts will recognise that because burning wood for energy threatens forests, air quality, and the climate, governments should not promote it as a zero-carbon renewable energy”

Renewable does not always mean Sustainable

Biomass is an integral part of Earth’s carbon cycle. The carbon cycle is the process by which carbon is exchanged between all layers of the Earth: atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere.

In order to effectively allow Earth to continue the carbon cycle process, however, biomass materials such as plants and forests have to be “sustainably farmed”. [5]

Just because biomass is renewable does not mean that it’s better for the climate.

We have to ask ourselves if “sustainable farming” will ever become a reality when corporate giants and corruption is involved in influencing policy makers within the governments around the world. Europe buying pellets from the US, Russia, and other big pellet distributers, is just another avoidance of the real issue that is how to really achieve “zero-emission, green energy”.

Goal Number 7 of the UN Sustainability Goals

“Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy”

Now ask yourself, does biomass achieve this?

The fate of the climate depends on the fate of the world’s forests, and one thing that’s clear is that they’re going to come under extraordinary pressure over the next several decades. Is it wise to accelerate deforestation in a time where their survival is most crucial?

[1] Why Burning Biomass is not Carbon Neutral – EDSP ECO

[2] GRUNWALD, M. (2021, March 26). The ‘Green Energy’ That Might Be Ruining the Planet.

[3] Bioenergy: The Ugly Truth – BirdLife Europe and Central Asia 

[4] Biomass, is it killing our forests?

[5] National Geographic – Biomass Energy

Conservation North

Life-Cycle Assessment on Biomass wood pellet production

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