Pellets, Plantations and Deforestation

For some background info on why we campaign against big biomass, see our biomass basics page. For more info on the pellet industry and imports to the UK, and consequent impacts on forests and communities, read on…

Where do the wood pellets burned in the UK come from? How much wood are we talking about?

Right now, Drax is the only UK power station that burns imported wood pellets rather than domestic woodchips. In 2017, Drax burned 6.8 million tonnes of pellets (made from 13.5 million tonnes of wood). The majority of those pellets came from the southern US, with most of the remainder coming from Canada, Latvia and Estonia1. However, the mothballed Lynemouth coal power station is currently being converted to biomass and is expected to start operating later in 2018. And MGT Power (owned by Macquarie Group and the Danish pension fund PKA) is building a large new biomass power station at Tees Port which is to open in 2020. Each of those power stations is to burn 1.5 million tonnes of pellets annually, and both have entered into sourcing agreements with Enviva, Drax’s biggest external pellet supplier. The UK’s total annual wood production is 11 million tonnes, and even before the biomass boom started, the country was 80% dependent on net imports for the wood it used 2.

Protest at Drax Power Station, October 2016. Photo by Sebastian Wood.

Forest destruction

There is no way that burning wood on this scale can ever be sustainable. According to the US Southern Environmental Law Centre: “Supplying the U.K.’s demand for wood pellets in 2016 alone required harvesting approximately 303 square km of forests in the southeastern U.S. At this level of demand, in a little over one year the U.K. will have harvested an area the size of the New Forest in England (376 sq. km, or more than 50,000 Wembley stadiums) for pellet production.”3

Red Wolf. The only remaining wild population of red wolves is in an area affected by the pellet industry. Photo by Christine Majul.

These Southeastern coastal forests in the US are home to bears, endangered red wolves, salamanders and a number of bird species as well as many endemic plants. According to a 2015 report by the National Resources Defense Council, the potential pellet sourcing area for existing and proposed pellet mills includes “critical habitat for 25 species that are federally listed as endangered or imperilled”.  The area has been classified as a biodiversity hotspot4, meaning that it contains an unusually high level of biodiversity (2000 endemic species in all) and that it is threatened. The threats here come from forest degradation and fragmentation, caused by urbanisation and ‘forest industries’ such as biomass.

Three-lined salamander. Photo by Peter Paplanus.

Environmental injustice

Enviva’s Ahoskie pellet plant, North Carolina. Photo by the Southern Environmental Law Centre

Pellet companies add to existing environmental injustice by siting mills and export facilities in communities already disadvantaged by industrial pollution and social inequity5. A resident of Richmond County, North Carolina, where Enviva is planning another pellet mill to supply the UK, explains:

The polluters, the big companies …continue to put their pollution in vulnerable areas where people don’t have the money to fight against them, where people have been disenfranchised over the years. So they go to African American communities and poorer communities.”6

These communities then have to live with increased air pollution, dust, noise and heavy traffic as well as loss of their local forests.



It’s a growing trade

The UK is currently the world’s largest importer of wood pellets, but other countries are ramping up their imports and wood burning. At the COP23 international climate conference in November 2017, nineteen countries including the UK announced an intention to use more bioenergy as they move away from coal, in the mistaken belief that this is better for the climate7.

Waste and residues?

The biomass industry claims to be using ‘waste and residues’ from ‘sustainably managed forests’. However, the amount of genuine residues available is tiny compared to the demand for wood. Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University has calculated that burning 100% of the UK’s forestry residues could only generate 0.9% of the country’s electricity supply. 8

Furthermore, there is no universally accepted definition of ‘residues’. NGOs such as the Dogwood Alliance in the southern US have extensively documented whole trees being taken from forests to pellet plants9. Drax’s supplier Enviva routinely calls trees ‘low-value’ and ‘residues’ just because they have not grown thick, straight and tall! This applies to the majority of trees in many forest ecosystems!

Log truck entering an Enviva facility. Photo by Dogwood Alliance.

Finally, removing all logging residues depletes soils, leading to even more carbon to be lost to the atmosphere and future trees to be deprived of the nutrients they need to grow well. Ecosystems need ‘residues’, including dead trees and branches to survive and regenerate.

Plantations are not forests

When companies such as Drax talk about ‘sustainably managed forests’, they are in fact often referring to industrial tree plantations. Industrial tree plantations are usually monocultures, consisting of trees of all one species, all the same age, in rows, with no undergrowth and no life. Just as the monocultures of industrial agriculture have spread over millions of hectares of formerly forested land, so have tree plantations. Establishing tree plantation often means using synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. It means damaging and compacting delicate soils with heavy machinery, and preventing ‘weeds’ or anything that might compete, from growing. Tree plantations do not provide habitat for biodiversity.  Most tree plantations are of non-native, often invasive species – ranging from Sitka spruce in Scotland, to eucalyptus monocultures in Brazil (nicknamed ‘green deserts’ because they support no life and take lots of water). Eucalyptus and non-native trees grown in monocultures commonly spread beyond plantations and are the cause of devastating wildfires, for example in Portugal.10

Especially in the global South, industrial tree plantations are responsible for large-scale land grabbing, depriving forest-dependent communities, small farmers and other communities of their land, livelihoods and food sovereignty.

Prothonotary warbler. Photo by Mike Ostrowski.

Finally, tree plantations pose a major threat to biodiverse ecosystems, both grasslands and forests. In the southern US (where most of the pellets imported by the Uk come from), tree plantations have been expanding at the expense of biodiverse forests for decades. The forests they replace provide habitat for species such as the prothonotary warbler and are vital for water filtration, flood prevention, soil protection, nutrient cycles and carbon sequestration. Living and dead trees both play a critical role in the ecosystem. Tree plantations, on the other hand, support few if any other species. A recent report by the Southern Environmental Law Centre states that:

One of the biggest threats to the region’s natural forests is the conversion to pine plantations.”11

See here for the Southern Environmental Law Centre’s map of proposed and existing pellet plants in the southeastern states, with the areas they will be sourcing wood from.

The SELC report concludes:
Increased demand for woody biomass will continue to exacerbate the pressures facing these forests by incentivizing the harvest of whole trees and the conversion of natural forests to monoculture pine plantations.”

The biomass industry is clearly responsible for the destruction of forests and their conversion to plantations – a fact confirmed by Enviva’s own recent data. While Enviva claims that that the amount of forested land in its sourcing area has increased, the Dogwood Alliance states that:

what these numbers are really showing is a growth in pine plantations. According to the US Forest service’s own data, since 1953, we’ve lost more than 37 million acres of natural forests, while pine plantation acreage has grown by about 42 million acres.12

Dodgy definitions

Unfortunately, there is a long tradition that refers to tree plantations as forests, or ‘planted forests’. The definition stems in part from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. The failure to differentiate between forests and industrial tree plantations is very convenient for the forestry industries. By referring to their monoculture plantations as ‘forests’, they convince the public that they are doing something ‘good for the environment’ and ‘good for the climate’; tree plantations are in reality a major underlying cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss. Tree plantation owners can even be financially rewarded from sale of ‘carbon credits’.

According to the Global Forest Coalition, “people around the world are demanding that the UN reconsider its definition and stop incentivising commercial plantations which have been expanding rapidly under the guise of ‘reforestation’ and ‘forest restoration’ at the cost of real forests.”

  4. (Feb 2016)