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U.S. Scientists Call for Wildlife Protections in EU Biomass Policy

Scientist Letter to the European Parliament and European Commission

WASHINGTON – Today 27 U.S. scientists wrote to European Union policy makers calling on them to protect a biodiversity hotspot in the United States. European demand for biomass is driving increased exports of wood pellets from forests in multiple states across the southeastern U.S. Much of the Southeast is considered a biodiversity hotspot not only because of its species richness but also extensive habitat loss. The scientist statement appeals for EU policy solutions to protect wildlife from continued expansion of the European pellet trade.

Some wood harvested in the Southeast U.S. is being pelletized and shipped to Europe to be burned for electricity, largely in coal power plants. This wood “biomass” qualifies as renewable energy despite EU biomass law not yet adopting protections for wildlife or ecosystems. The EU has agreed to targets of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020.

“EU policymakers have the opportunity to advance wood biomass energy goals in ways that enhance America’s forest health and increase wildlife populations, rather than degrade them,” said Collin O’Mara, president and chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation, “We encourage EU policymakers to listen to the recommendations of these prominent scientists and adopt sustainable solutions that advance the renewable energy goals of the EU and expand market opportunities, while conserving the rich natural resource heritage of the southeast United States.”

“This is so ‘out of sight out of mind,’” said Dr. Tom Lovejoy. “If Europeans understood the biodiversity and carbon impacts on the North American forests they would recoil.” Dr. Lovejoy is joined by over two dozen experts in fields concerning wildlife and biodiversity, including esteemed scientists like E.O. Wilson, Stuart Pimm, and Peter Raven.

The letter identifies many ways that the EU can implement protections for biodiversity. This includes restricting biomass harvested from highly-biodiverse or at-risk ecosystems like wetland forests, only using biomass in highly efficient power plants, and identifying and protecting sensitive species and critical habitats. Many of these issues are associated with the significant ramp up of pellet exports to Europe, which have increased seven-fold since 2010. The scientists call on the EU to not expand biomass usage further.

“Forests in this region are often overlooked, but they are among the most species rich in the world and are also highly threatened by habitat loss” said Dr. Jennifer Costanza. Costanza was on the research team that recognized the biodiversity of southeast forests. The North American Coastal Plain, which ranges from Massachusetts to Texas and encompasses much of the Southeast, was declared a biodiversity hotspot in 2016. To qualify, a region must have 1,500 endemic vascular plant species and have lost over 70 percent of its habitat. Species in the region like the gopher frog, northern bobwhite quail, and bog turtle are listed as “Threatened” or “Near Threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. For these species and many others, habitat loss is playing a key role in their decline. 

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Scientist Biodiversity and Pellet Trade Letter

Dear Members of the European Parliament and European Commission:

January 8, 2018

We support European Union efforts to address climate change by reducing GHG emissions, including the 2010-2020 Renewable Energy Directive (RED). However, the 2010 RED’s inclusion of woody biomass as a carbon-free renewable energy resource, coupled with generous subsidies by certain EU member states, has created a boom in biomass demand in the Southeast United States (SE U.S.) that, according to recent peer-reviewed publications, will likely lead to long-term, landscape-scale loss of critical habitats that will worsen ongoing threats to the region’s globally-significant biodiversity.  

As scientists with expertise in biodiversity, conservation, ecology, and related disciplines, we write to express our concern with the potentially grave impacts that EU renewable energy policy and the wood pellet export industry that it created is likely to have on biodiversity in the SE U.S.

In 2016, the North American Coastal Plain, including the SE Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains, was recognized as the 36th Global Biodiversity Hotspot. To qualify as a global biodiversity hotspot, an area must: 1) have over 1,500 endemic species, which are found almost entirely in a region (the SE U.S. has over 2,000 endemics, particularly vascular plants, fishes, amphibians, and reptiles), and 2) have lost over 70% of its natural habitats. In the North American Coastal Plain hotspot, 72% of all forest types, 96% of savannahs and woodlands, and 97% of grasslands, marshes, and glades have been highly altered or converted.[1][2] Unlike other areas of the U.S. that have large protected areas, the SE U.S. has relatively few protected areas, especially considering its world-class biodiversity.[3]

As a direct result of the 2010 RED and EU member state biomass subsidies, the pellet export industry increased seven-fold since 2010, with wood pellet exports to Europe totaling nearly five million tons/year in 2015. Longer term demand projections vary, but estimates exceed 20 million tons/year. One assessment predicts that European wood pellet exports will eventually constitute twenty percent of the total annual wood harvest in the Southeastern United States.[4] The current and projected scale of forest biomass harvesting in the SE U.S. raises serious biodiversity concerns.

According to a 2014 U.S. Forest Service report entitled “Effect of policies on pellet production and forests in the U.S. South,” European biomass demand, combined with reduced pulpwood inventories after years of lower demand and decreased plantings, will drive the price of woody biomass to double for over a decade across the entire Southeast. According to the Forest Service report, this represents an “unprecedented” policy impact.[5]  

A growing body of peer-reviewed studies predicts that this decade-long doubling in pulpwood prices will have a range of large-scale conservation impacts. Some impacts may be positive, such as reducing the loss of forestland to agriculture and increased tree-planting, which would increase sequestration. And there is an opportunity for small-scale biomass to play a role in habitat improvement and climate change mitigation, specifically through “conservation biomass” that has tangible land restoration benefits. But the doubling in the price of pulpwood will likely have significant negative impacts on critical habitats, chiefly through their conversion to pulpwood plantations. Consider the following findings:

  • Wang (2015) found that between 2007 and 2032, between 300,000 and almost 500,000 hectares of pine savanna and grasslands respectively will be converted to plantations.[6]

  • Assessing impacts in NC, Costanza et. al (2016) found that “Meeting demand for biomass from conventional forests resulted in more total forest land compared with a baseline, business-as-usual scenario. However, the remaining forest was composed of more intensively managed forest and less of the bottomland hardwood and longleaf pine habitats that support biodiversity.”[7]

  • In assessing the impacts of land conversion driven by the Renewable Energy Directive and other bioenergy policies, Tarr (2016) finds that projected high levels of forest-based and farm-based biomass usage will lead to large-scale changes to the types and extent of forest and farm habitats, threatening one or more indicator species.[8]

A study commissioned by the European Commission to assess the ecological impacts of the pellet export industry rates the biodiversity risks from converting natural forests to plantations as “high.”[9]

These habitat and biodiversity risks call for changes to EU policy. As EU policymakers consider revisions for the 2020-2030 RED, we urge you to:

1. Given the habitat and biodiversity threats forecast by studies of the biomass usage levels expected under the current RED, do not expand biomass usage beyond current levels under the new 2020-2030 RED.

2. Prohibit member states from subsidizing biomass use if it’s used to generate electric energy only; allow woody biomass to be eligible for RED compliance only if it’s used in combined heat-and-power plants that use most of the heat produced.

3. Require pellet manufacturers to identify and protect species and critical habitats, including but not limited to bottomland forests.

4. Prohibit the use of biomass from highly biodiverse or at-risk ecosystems, unless biomass harvesting is part of a legitimate ecosystem restoration plan.

5. Exclude biomass from wetland forests from qualifying for the new RED targets or financial support.

We urge EU policymakers to take the biodiversity impacts into account as you revise the RED.

Sincerely,

Dr. Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Chair of Conservation, Duke University, President, SavingSpecies

Dr. Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University, Museum of Comparative Zoology

Dr. Peter Raven, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden 

Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University

Dr. William H. Schlesinger, James B. Duke Professor of Biogeochemistry, Dean (Emeritus) the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, President (Emeritus), the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

Dr. Harold Mooney, Professor of Biology, Emeritus, Stanford University

Dr. Jennifer Costanza, Research Assistant Professor, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University

Dr. Nick Haddad, Professor of Integrative Biology, Michigan State University

Dr. Bert Hölldobler, University Professor of Life Sciences, Regents’ and Foundation Professor, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Professor emeritus University of Würzburg

Dr. Jacqueline Mohan, Associate Professor – Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia

Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies and President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University

Dr. John G. Hildebrand, Regents Professor, University of Arizona, Tucson

Dr. G. Philip Robertson, University Distinguished Professor, Michigan State University

Dr. Daniel Simberloff, Nancy Gore Hunger Professor of Environmental Studies, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Dr. Bill Platt, Department of Biological Sciences, Louisiana State University

Dr. Thomas D. Seeley, Horace White Professor in Biology, Cornell University

Dr. William R. Moomaw, Emeritus Professor, Co-Director Global Development and Environment Institute Tufts University

Dr. Andrew George, Assistant Professor of Biology, Pittsburg State University

Dr. Herman H. Shugart, W.W. Corcoran Professor of Natural History, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia

Dr. Gene E. Likens, President Emeritus, Ecologist, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Distinguished Research Professor, University of Connecticut

Dr. Johannes Foufopoulos, Associate Professor, School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan

Dr. Douglas J. Futuyma, Distinguished Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolution, Stony Brook University

Jerry F. Franklin, Professor of Ecosystem Analysis, College of Forest Resources, University of Washington

Dr. Bruce E. Dale, University Distinguished Professor, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Michigan State University

Dr. Loretta L. Battaglia, Associate Professor, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Dr. Robert K. Peet, Professor, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Dr. Reed F. Noss, Conservation Science, Inc., Florida Institute for Conservation Science

                                                                                                                                                  

[1] Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, Announcing the World’s 36th Biodiversity Hotspot 

[2] Noss, R. F., W. J. Platt, B. A. Sorrie, A. S. Weakley, D. B. Means, J. K. Costanza, and R. K. Peet. 2015. How global biodiversity hotspots may go unrecognized: lessons from the North American Coastal Plain. Diversity and Distributions 21:236–244.

[3] Jenkins, C. N., Van Houton, K.S., Pimm, S., Sexton, J.O. 2015. US protected lands mismatch biodiversity priorities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

[4] Olesen, A.S., Bager, S.L., Kittler, B., Price, W., Aguilar, F. 2016. Environmental implications of increased reliance of the EU on biomass from the South East US. European Commission.

[5] Abt, Karen L.; Abt, Robert C.; Galik, Christopher S.; Skog, Kenneth E. 2014.Effect of policies on pellet production and forests in the U.S. South: a technical document supporting the Forest Service update of the 2010 RPA Assessment. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Southern Research Station.

[6] Wang, W., Dwivedi, P., Abt, R., Khanna, M. 2015. Carbon savings with transatlantic trade in pellets: accounting for market-driven effects. Environmental Research Letters.

[7] Costanza, J. K., Abt, R. C., McKerrow, A. J. Collazo, J. A. 2016. Bioenergy production and forest landscape change in the southeastern United States. GCB Bioenergy.

[8] Tarr, N.M., Rubino, M.J., Costanza, J.K., McKerrow, A.J., Collazo, J.A., Abt, R.C. 2016. Projected gains and losses of wildlife habitat from bioenergy-induced landscape change. GCB Bioenergy.

[9] Olesen, A.S., Bager, S.L., Kittler, B., Price, W., Aguilar, F. 2016. Environmental implications of increased reliance of the EU on biomass from the South East US. European Commission.

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