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Is the ‘Burned’ film believable?

A film recently released online by anti-biomass campaigners is being promoted widely at the moment. It's called 'Burned'.

To give the anti-biomass lobbyists credit, they’ve produced a very slick film.

If you watch it through, by the end credits you’ll be convinced that all those who support bioenergy – thousands of policymakers, scientists, foresters, energy experts and investors throughout the world – are deeply mistaken. Or, worse, they don’t care.

The film presents an industry freely cutting swathes across ancient, sensitive woodlands, “destroying forests, biodiversity and making climate change worse.” And being paid “disproportionately large amounts” to do so.

But is ‘Burned’ balanced? Have you been shown the real picture and the arguments on both sides with data to back it up? And if not, is it believable?

The truth is that this film is not just unbalanced – it’s completely biased, and dangerously wrong. It paints a deeply inaccurate picture, basing its narrative on flawed assumptions about how forestry operates and how the forests over recent years and decades have performed.

This film falls into the normal pattern of anti-biomass campaigners who, in the words of forestry experts Forisk, repeatedly commit three fundamental errors:

  1. Failure to provide context;

  2. Improperly assigning causal relationships;

  3. Errors of fact.

There are many issues here, but we’ve picked out the key ones that keep coming up again and again from the same people.

To begin with, we’d suggest watching this film by Tony Juniper, the renowned environmental champion and now Chairman of the English environmental agency, Natural England. Tony goes to the same forest region and explores how the sector works. It’ll help provide some balance.


#1 “Destroying Forests”

“We’re tearing them down at an alarming rate and burning them in power stations.”

Danna Smith, Dogwood Alliance

“They’re cutting whole forests, whole trees as their primary source of biomass.”

Derb Carter Jr, Southern Environmental Law Centre

The message was loud and clear: for the purpose of supplying wood pellets for energy, forests are being “destroyed”.

So, you’d expect to see a reduction in forest land in the relevant areas, right? The data should show a) deforestation and b) an increase in forest ‘removals’ (harvesting).

Yet not once – nowhere in the film – does ‘Burned’ reference data from the US Forest Service on improving forest inventories. The US Forest Service is a government agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that administers the nation's 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands, which encompass 193 million acres. So if you're saying deforestation is happening, it's a bit suspicious to leave out the USFS data.

Here’s what the data look like for the US South as a whole – the region where the film focuses and where the UK sources much of its pellets (taken from here):

See that? Year-on-year, net growth of forest inventories in the timberlands of the US South.

Zooming in a bit, here’s what the data show for just the areas where Enviva operates (Enviva is the largest pellet producer in the US South – the film took particular aim at the company, so it's worth looking closely at these areas). Note that this graph has two scales due to the different magnitudes involved – one for forest inventory on the left, the other for removals on the right:

The data show massive growth in forest inventories (i.e. the amount of woody material growing in the forests) – from 1.7 billion tons of trees in 2000 to 2.35 billion tons in 2018. That’s an increase of about 27%.

About half-way along the graph, in 2008, you can see the wood pellet market picking up, reaching a height of about 8 million tons per year. As pellets ramp up, what happens to the blue line, showing forest growth? It keeps on climbing. That means forests continued to grow, even as pellets were being produced.

Eight million tons sounds like a huge amount of wood pellets. Yet look at the proportions. That’s 8 million tons compared to 2.35 billion tons in these timberlands, or 0.34%. This is just the areas where Enviva operates – the average pellet export market for the wider US South is about 0.09% of forest inventories. Despite this tiny role, there is evidence of pellet sourcing improving localised forestry practices.

Furthermore, in Enviva’s sourcing region, forest inventory has grown 20% in the past 10 years – in large part due to a stringent adherence to sustainable sourcing and forestry practices. Over that same period, and as referenced above, federal data has shown that forest removals have remained at 2% of overall inventory, of which Enviva purchases less than two one-hundredths of a percent.

The ‘Burned’ film presents pellets as a dominant, game-changing industry wiping out forests.The data show the complete opposite.


#2 The “Carbon Debt” Fallacy

“We don’t have 50, 75, 100 years to wait for those trees to grow back, to take that carbon out of the atmosphere. We need to do it right now.”

Mary Booth

“What’s different with bioenergy is that there’s an assumption that some time in the future those emissions will be offset. No one’s making sure this happens.”

Mary Booth

"The time lag is hugely important."

William Moomaw

Let’s be clear: the biomass industry does not sit around waiting decades for trees to regrow.

The anti-biomass lobby likes to claim (see the quotes above) that the premise of biomass is based on chopping down a tree (or a stand of trees), burning it all, then waiting “50, 75, 100 years” to grow back. This creates ‘carbon debt’, meaning that the carbon hangs around in the atmosphere, until it can be reabsorbed by new growth. And, as Mary Booth states, we can’t wait that long.

This simply isn’t based in reality. There is no time lag if a forest is experiencing net growth – and these forests are experiencing net growth.

In 1953, when records began, the timberlands of the US South comprised about 5.2 billion cubic metres of wood. In 2012, that figure had risen to 10.8 billion cubic metres – and it’s continuing to rise, according to US Forest Service data.

To understand how and why, we need to look not at just one tree or one stand, but the landscape as a whole.

An individual stand of a few acres will be harvested 2-3 times over its growth cycle, with thinning out mid-way, then usually a ‘clear cut’ once trees are mature. However, that’s just one stand.

In the same forest, there will be tens of thousands of stands, all at different stages in their growth. This process of ongoing, continual growth (of about 3-4% per year) means that you can harvest 2-3% of a forest, whilst also seeing net growth of about 1%. This process started long before the pellet sector arrived.

So, there isn’t a point where the forest dips down, waiting for regrowth, which would create this ‘carbon debt’. Instead, there is ongoing growth, which started decades or even centuries ago.

Plenty of people have asked the question: “but why don’t we just leave the forest alone?” The answer is that we wouldn’t see this impressive growth rate if humans weren’t actively managing forests to boost growth. And the world desperately needs the help of forests to combat climate change. Foresters help woodland growth by combatting wildfires, disease, infestations and by managing natural resources like water and access to sunlight. This process is paid for by revenues from sustainable harvesting for timber and other products including pellets.

Here are the results of a study into the effects of active forests and harvesting on a forest. It’s taken from this forestry reportand uses official US Forest Service data. As each of these graphs shows, whether it’s hardwoods or softwoods and whether you’re measuring growth rates, acreage or inventory (i.e. how much wood is growing in the forest), sustainable harvesting is correlated with higher growth:

The biggest threat to woodlands is not harvesting for pellets. It’s urbanisation and conversion to agriculture – so revenues from bioenergy (and other sectors) actually help protect forests. This report goes into more detail about the benefits to forests from active sustainable management.

And regarding Mary Booth’s claim that “no one’s making sure this happens”: actually, a range of sustainability governance is in place to ensure that forests aren’t being depleted and pellets are sourced from sustainably managed woodlands. From the UK’s Sustainability Criteria, to the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, to international certification schemes like the Sustainable Biomass Program, there are clear, legally binding, transparent systems making sure this happens.

And despite the theme of ‘they’re pulling the wool over your eyes’ throughout the film, you yourself can view Drax’s Forestscope data here and Enviva’s two-plus years’ worth of Track & Trace data here – both allowing you to track sourcing by individual shipments and/or forest stands.Enviva developed sustainability initiatives that go well beyond the legal and certification requirements, including Track & Trace, a proprietary data system, and its responsible sourcing policy, providing transparency in its fibre procurement.


#3 “Ground-truthing”

“We identify the sites in which the industry is harvesting its feedstocks for pellets and then from there we go down to the ground and we ground-truth.”

Dogwood Alliance campaigner

This one stood out for us because it sounds so convincing, yet it’s deeply misleading. It’s also representative of the entire ‘Burned’ film’s approach – they never give a wider view.

By pretending that you get a more ‘real’ truth on the ground, the Dogwood Alliance is ignoring a wider reality.

Here’s why:

The film suggests that every time it shows a tree being cut down, it’s happening for the pellet industry. That just isn’t the reality.

It’s important to recognize that forests are not managed solely to produce wood for pellets.

The reality goes like this:

  1. Most timber wood is used for construction, because it fetches higher prices. This is what drives forestry, not pellet markets (as Forisk points out);

  2. Smaller wood, but still good quality, can be used for joinery;

  3. Lower-grade wood, but still often ‘whole trees’ harvested in the thinning process, is used for panel boards, pulp, paper and pellets.

Wood that goes to pellet mills is often ‘whole trees’. Some wood, if it’s large enough for timber use and not diseased, misshapen or knotted, will be rejected by the pellet mill and sent on for timber use. The rest is used for pellets because it’s very low-grade and low-value. For an example of this approach, see Enviva’s fibre sourcing policy.

This system allows the market to cascade wood through a hierarchy that gets best use of the wood.

If you turn up at a logging site and secretly take photos, even if you then follow trucks to a pellet mill, it’s not the ‘real deal’. Just as was done in this movie, critics misconstrue the wood that is delivered to pellet plants as being high-value wood based on visual inspection of photographs or woodpiles without having seen the forest intact. It’s not ‘ground-truth’ – you’re simply not getting the whole picture.

This approach is repeated throughout the film – lots of anecdotes, lots of theories, plenty of misdirection and misrepresentation, but very little real-world data.


#3 “Burning biomass is dirtier than coal”

“Burning biomass to produce electricity emits 40-60% more CO2 per Megawatt hour than burning coal.”

Screen quote, ‘Burned’ film

“Quote/unquote: ‘carbon-free’ source of energy...”

Mary Booth

Firstly, we don’t claim that bioenergy is carbon neutral or 'carbon free' and neither do the rules and regulations governing our industry. The regulations are designed to ensure massive cuts in carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels, but they don’t assume or pretend there are no emissions.

Secondly, whilst biomass releases about 3-5% more CO2e than coal per unit of energy, it is certainly not 40-60% more. Such a figure reflects a worst-case boiler efficiency level which just doesn’t reflect standard biomass power generation. Efficiency levels in Drax’s boilers, for example, achieve just 2% above coal on stack emissions. And comparing only stack emissions (the emissions from the station chimney, not the supply chain or fuel origin) is misleading because forests are continuing to grow and recapture carbon, whereas coal just pumps out more carbon into the air.

So there is a fundamental difference between releasing biogenic carbon and geologic carbon. In the film, Mary Booth criticises this point, claiming that there’s no difference, because the radiative forcing of CO2 is the same, wherever it originated. That’s true, but it misses a key element. The fundamental difference that Booth chooses to ignore is this:

If you use fossil fuels, you release carbon into the atmosphere that has been locked away for tens of thousands, or millions of years.

But if you release biogenic carbon (i.e. from organic materials), you’re releasing carbon that is part of an ongoing cycle. It’s like tapping into the biosphere’s cycle of inhaling and exhaling. And because forests are experiencing net growth, it’s actually helping to create a net carbon sink. That’s why bioenergy stack emissions are considered to be matched by forest growth, cancelling each other out. That doesn’t mean that the supply chain is ignored though – it’s included in the emissions reported by the sector.

So, fossil fuels release carbon from deep in the earth’s crust back into the atmosphere. But bioenergy takes part in an ongoing biosphere-atmosphere cycle. That’s an important difference.

This was investigated by the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and then refined by its successor, (BEIS). They found that the normal operation of the biomass power sector delivers considerable carbon savings, compared to a number of alternative supply chain scenarios, including just leaving the forest untouched.

But we want to go one further. We don’t just want much lower emissions than fossil fuels. We want to create ‘net negative’ emissions – where we actually remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Bioenergy with Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage, aka BECCUS, is one set of technologies that could make this happen. It would work like this:

  1. Forests grow, absorbing carbon;

  2. Some trees are harvested, with most wood going to timber (locking away carbon) and off-cuts/thinnings used for pellets. Revenues go back into forests;

  3. The pellets are used to produce power and heat, displacing fossil fuels;

  4. The emissions from power generation are captured rather than being released into the atmosphere;

  5. Carbon is either stored underground or used in a variety of industrial products;

  6. Forests continue to grow…

By absorbing carbon in trees and from stack emissions, we could capture more carbon from the atmosphere than is released – effectively sucking it out of the atmosphere. It’s a technology widely seen as essential to beating climate change (here’s a report on biomass, including a key role for BECCUS, from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change). It’s especially essential if we don’t meet our current emissions targets (as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said).

This is described as fantasy by the anti-biomass lobby, but there’s already a world-leading BECCUS pilot project capturing carbon at Drax in the UK. It’s not at commercial scale yet, but the UK government is developing policies quickly to make this happen. The Energy Technologies Institute supports BECCUS, as do the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. Having a thriving bioenergy sector is one central step towards that.


In summary

‘Burned’ looks good, sounds convincing, but it’s not even a partial view of the reality. It’s actually wrong and misrepresents an industry that is, in fact, supporting successful forests and cutting carbon emissions.

We’d encourage anyone interested in the subject to look at the facts in the forest. You can find extensive resources from a wide range of academics and technical experts, looking at everything from carbon emissions to forestry practices, in our Resource Library.

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