By J. Winston Porter, Ph.D.
U.S. environmental groups shower praise on European climate control policies and beg for comparable American actions. But governmental mandates in Europe to reduce carbon emissions have shown remarkably ineffective results.
Interestingly, Georgia is playing a notable role in European energy folly. The Europeans have decided to include the burning of biomass – mostly wood – in their renewable energy standards. Here’s the logic behind their decision: Trees naturally die and degrade, releasing carbon dioxide. So, if you burn wood but replace what is burned with newly planted vegetation, it’s carbon-neutral and renewable.
If this sounds too good to be true, you’re right. Driven by the European Commission’s 2020 climate and energy plan, the Europeans have developed a voracious appetite for timber. The wood that initially was intended for biomass power plants was supposed to be waste wood from mills or the forest floor. But instead, logging of forests is feeding much of Europe’s wood demand – and that’s where Georgia comes in.
Georgia, the largest timber producer in the Southeast, has become a major producer and exporter of the wood pellets that are being burned in Europe’s biomass plants.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, exports of U.S. wood pellets jumped from two million tons to more than four million tons per year between 2012 and 2014. They’ve only continued to climb since. And of those exports, more than 90 percent head to Europe.
Rising demand for wood pellets has been great for American producers but, it turns out, not so great for carbon reduction efforts. A new study from Chatham House, a leading British think tank, shows that the burning of all this wood actually may be worse for global carbon dioxide emissions than burning coal.
Wood isn’t nearly as energy dense as coal, meaning it takes twice as much wood as coal to generate the same amount of power. And when mature trees are cut down to feed wood pellet demand, new trees planted in their place don’t soak up nearly as much carbon.
This wood pellet boondoggle is one example of how Europe’s heavy-handed emissions reduction polices are going wrong. In Germany, a government-mandated shift to renewable power has resulted in electricity prices that are now three times that of America.
In contrast, the U.S. approach to reducing emissions has been driven mostly by new technology and markets, not by government mandates. Unlike Germany, U.S. energy prices have largely fallen or remained flat.
Our market solution has seen the emergence of abundant, low-cost natural gas. The innovative technology of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has allowed shale producers to turn the U.S. into the world’s largest natural gas producer. Our vast supply of affordable, clean-burning natural gas has reshaped the U.S. electricity mix nearly overnight.
A decade ago, coal generated 50 percent of our electricity. Today it generates less than a third, and has been surpassed by natural gas as our largest fuel for power generation. The result: U.S. carbon emissions are now the lowest they have been in 25 years and no country – including Germany – is reducing its emissions faster.
While the temptation always exists to try government mandates to fix problems, we usually see that the marketplace is much better at finding the most efficient solutions. The right approach to making environmental progress is to allow newer, cleaner technologies to compete in the market. Doing so ensures progress isn’t just measured by reduced emissions, but also by lower-cost energy.
Georgia’s logging activities lead to many beneficial products such as new homes. As for the Europeans, perhaps they could import less “mandated” American timber and more American market discipline.
(The writer is a national energy and environmental consultant, based in Savannah. He was an assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, with national responsibility for waste management programs.)