Ethics, compliance and consumer goods

After years of almost unimpeded rise, wood’s reputation is coming under fire, as increasing numbers of experts are questioning the overall carbon footprint of wood and timber.

In February of 2017, the Times published an article about the Drax power plant, in North Yorkshire, and its financial modus operandi. “Britain is more reliant on biomass, alongside wind and solar power, amid pressure to close dirty coal-fired stations. Drax, which supplies about 7% of Britain’s electricity, now generates two-thirds of its power from organic matter, the rest from coal. It imports wood pellets from America.”, it reported.

Indeed, as the European Union was working on the environmental crises, it sought to identify more sustainable ways to produce energy, both renewable and carbon neutral. The first champions to spring to mind were wind and solar power of course: despite moderate critics, they produce power consuming absolutely nothing, and their resource is just about infinite. Wood also managed to make it onto the list of energy means which would soon be showered with millions of taxpayer euros. However, if wood is indeed renewable to some extent (insofar as the soil used to grow the timber is maintained), it is not carbon neutral, far from it: burning wood will produce as much carbon as any other type of combustion.

Only now, are experts calling policy-makers out on the dangerous approximation which has flawed their judgement and made wood businesses somewhat rich. Sami Yassa, from Ecowatch, pulled an alarm on this matter in February 2017 : “Currently energy companies are cutting U.S. forests and producing wood pellets to export to EU markets, claiming that biomass fuel is clean and renewable. These exports are driven by generous EU renewable energy subsidies that erroneously reward all forest biomass as “carbon-neutral”—equivalent to non-polluting sources like solar and wind energy. In other words, when counting carbon pollution at a biomass power plant, EU regulators treat the discharge from the smokestack as zero carbon, even though biomass combustion releases carbon emissions at levels comparable to fossil fuels.”

Just in 2016, the Drax power plant was handed over half a billion pounds of public money to burn wood, instead of coal. But after new studies emerge, it turns out that burning wood never was a lower-carbon-footprint energy solution compared to coal. In fact, it produces more carbon, and in several ways.

Warren Cornwall, who recently published an extensive and detailed article on the matter for Science Mag, addressed the wood-burning frenzy: “Pellets consumed 3% of the wood cut in the southeast in 2013, far less than what goes to pulp or lumber. But According to him, “critics argue that accounting for carbon recycling is far more complex than it seems. They say favoring wood could actually boost carbon emissions, not curb them, for many decades.” Critics indeed are numerous, ranging from forest protectors worried about the future of their land, to economic experts who find the ground on which the policies were built to be shaky and dubious. “Some scientists also worry that policies promoting wood fuels could unleash a global logging boom that trashes forest biodiversity in the name of climate protection”, Cornwall wrote.

The wood industry’s lobbying effort wasn’t limited to energy production, but also marched into construction materials. After a few years of wind-filled sails during which some architects turned more towards wood in their building designs, the lobbying effort there too seems to be crumbling. Beyond the long-known fact that wood offers less architectural freedom than steel, it seems that a few horror stories regarding building infernos have chilled the warmth around wood.

Here also, going green isn’t as pink as it is given to think. Construction experts are increasingly warning about the dangers involved in wooden buildings. Construction expert Jose L. Torrero warns: “Concrete and steel buildings have inherent risks which are very well known. These are conventional constructions and we have today the guarantees necessary for their proper construction. But once out of this realm, using different materials means entering another world. Building a 25-story wooden building is as complicated as building the Burj Dubai Tower. High-level engineers must be summoned to address new issues, with staggering complexity. And the world counts very few such engineers.” The current “greenwashing push” for more wood-based therefore will have consequences which we do not master well yet.

Greenwashing was inevitable. When a topic becomes popular, it will inevitably attract new industries who will milk the matter to the last drop, and find clever ways to convert that popularity into hard currency. Wind and solar power are no exception to this trend, with billions of state subsidies being injected into the economically unprofitable market. With every lobbying push, more money falls out of the public sky. And because in many parts of the industry, wood is the contender and not the leader, greenwashing is as much the way to new markets as it is the key to survival. It is therefore unlikely to go away anytime soon.




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