Why Would 46 Senators Support Burning Trees for Electricity When It Contributes More to Climate Change Than Coal?
Chopping down trees and feeding them to power plants for electricity is a genuinely awful idea. It hurts biodiversity, belches toxic chemicals and contributes more to climate change than coal—all while masquerading as a source of clean “renewable” energy.
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Unfortunately, none of this stopped 46 senators from publicly endorsing the idea last week. Led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the group wrote a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy demanding that the agencies accept something that is clearly, demonstrably false: that biomass power is carbon neutral. While the letter was chock full of anti-science Senators like David Vitter (R-LA), others like Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) fancy themselves climate leaders and should know better.
The science is clear. Sending whole trees through the smokestacks of power plants is a terrible way to generate electricity. Even using rosy accounting assumptions, it could take at least 50 years to work-off the carbon debt and break even with coal, meaning that burning wood now puts extra emissions into the atmosphere at precisely the time when reductions are most important. At the end of the day it is simply an inefficient source of electricity, emitting 50 percent more carbon than coal generating the same amount of energy. Leaving trees alone and allowing them to function as natural carbon sinks is a much more effective way to mitigate climate change.
The troubling part is that the timing of this letter wasn’t an accident. Any day, the U.S. EPA is expected to release the final version of its Clean Power Plan, the rule designed to lower carbon emissions from power plants, and one of the biggest questions is how favorably the rule is going to treat biomass. This means that the senators are angling to make sure that as states implement the rule, wood biomass is guaranteed as an option.
You know to worry when supposed climate champions are willing to line up with outright deniers in order to promulgate an industry myth. The letter contains loads of lawmakers who hate the EPA and want to sabotage the Clean Power Plan, including avowed climate deniers like Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). Also on the list are senators like Cory Gardner (R-CO) who sometimes admit that climate change is real, but who avidly supports doing nothing about it.
On the other side of the spectrum, these deniers have some strange company. Sen. Jeff Merkley led the charge for the democrats, and he has lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters of 98 percent. He was joined by other high profile environmental champions like Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Al Franken (D-MN), who boast lifetime scores of 89 and 93 percent respectively.
Really, the only thing these lawmakers have in common is a commitment to taking money from timber. Last November the industry poured more than $1.5 million into contested senate races, and unsurprisingly Merkley and Collins both did rather well with $40,399 and $35,250 each.
The senate isn’t the only place timber has been investing. Over in the House the industry spent more than $2.9 million on the last election, so it’s not particularly surprising that a funding bill that was debated this week includes a massive industry giveaway. Ostensibly, the bill is meant to provide money for the EPA and the Department of the Interior, but snuck into the text is a provision that would require the EPA to ignore all of its previous research and pretend that burning wood biomass is categorically carbon neutral.
Fudging the math to create the illusion of progress doesn’t actually keep carbon out of the atmosphere, and while these anti-science attacks are a familiar song from deniers, our climate champions should know better than to play along. Lowering emissions means honestly accounting for where our emissions come from—whether it be agriculture, transportation or electricity—and acting from there to make reductions. Pretending that one of these sources doesn’t exist at all is just another species of denial.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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By Jessica Corbett
Green groups applauded Sen. Jeff Merkley on Wednesday for introducing a pioneering pair of bills that aim to "protect the long-term health and well-being of the American people and their economy from the catastrophic effects of climate chaos" by preventing banks and international financial institutions from financing fossil fuels.