Two months before world leaders reached a landmark climate accord in Paris, John Upton’s groundbreaking reporting illuminated an issue that few understood: that renewable energy doesn’t necessarily mean clean energy.
Wood energy — pellets made from trees, mostly from the U.S. South, burned as fuel in power plants — is touted as good for the planet, and heavily subsidized by governments in Europe for the climate benefits. But in fact, as Upton’s outstanding three-part series, “Pulp Fiction,” shows, electricity produced using wood is heating the atmosphere more quickly than coal.
Upton spent five months investigating this issue, reporting from where wood pellets are produced by razing forests in the U.S., to where they are burned in Europe. He paints a vivid picture of how a misguided assumption has led to policies that threaten the climate they aim to save.
He produced this at a critical time. The negotiations leading up to December’s triumphant round talks were not addressing the health of the world’s forests, despite the knowledge that they are major factors affecting global warming rates. Upton’s work helped launch forests back into the conversation and steps to protect them were included in the final Paris accord.
The problems inherent with industrial-scale wood energy had not been comprehensively explored before “Pulp Fiction.” To understand it, the issue had to be tackled from both sides of the Atlantic. The large-scale burning of wood for power has gained traction, and policy support, from European governments trying to meet strict EU emissions targets. The wood, however, is coming from where it is plentifully available: forests in the U.S.
A small chorus of scientists and environmentalists had been trying to bring attention to the problem with little success until Upton completed his series. “Pulp Fiction” was described as a “compelling and infuriating package” by New York Times science writer Andy Revkin. It was also written about in Quartz, InsideClimate News, Huffington Post, GreenBiz, Discovery News, the Daily Caller and Business Insider. The European Commission recently announced it was investigating subsidies awarded to the British power plant at the center of the series.
Upton reported exhaustively from the field, from Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oregon as well as in the U.K. and Brussels. He interviewed dozens of forestry scientists, ecologists, climate scientists and other academic and government researchers. He also interviewed CEOs, site managers and regular workers at companies involved in producing and burning wood pellets, loggers who have been affected by pulp industry trends, and former coal workers in England whose industry is vanishing as wood pellets and other renewable forms of energy grow.
In addition to more than 12,000 words of seamless writing by Upton, “Pulp Fiction” featured a one-minute animation explaining the climate impacts of wood energy, six interactive 360-degree panoramas, interactive Highcharts, elegant graphics, and essential videos with key sources, all wrapped in a beautifully designed stand-alone website.
The reporting painted a grim picture for the climate. Analysis of power plant data showed that burning the wood pellets for electricity releases 15 to 20 percent more carbon dioxide pollution than burning coal, the dirty fossil fuel that the wood pellets are replacing. And shipping and producing the pellets increases CO2 emissions by an additional 20 percent compared with coal.
The impact on the climate is made even worse because, by harvesting slow-growing hardwood trees in the U.S. South, the capacity of forests to absorb carbon dioxide pollution is reduced. The razing of these forests also harms biodiversity, and as the series detailed, whole trees are being felled to provide most of the raw materials needed to produce the pellets, contradicting public claims that waste wood is being used.
After the series was published, the European Union announced in January that it was launching an investigation into the environmental and economic impacts of subsidies that the U.K. is providing for wood energy. Many of those impacts are in the U.S. And in February, Dutch lawmakers voted to suspend subsidies for wood energy.
Climate Central is a unique organization, featuring a team of scientists and analysts dedicated to climate research, and an independent editorial team dedicated to science journalism. We are non-profit, non-advocacy and dedicated to the public’s understanding of climate change, a topic often manipulated and derailed by politics at the expense of science. “Pulp Fiction” was a triumph for Climate Central because it drew together disparate parts of our organization to produce a probing and compelling piece of science reporting that sets a new standard for NGO journalism.