By Chris Lang
Copenhagen plans to be the world’s first carbon neutral capital city by 2025. One of the city’s targets is to produce electricity from wind and “sustainable biomass”. Two weeks ago the ship IDC Pearl arrived at the Amager BIO4 power plant in Copenhagen carrying more than 32,000 tons of wood chips from Brazil. A recent investigation by Emil Ellesøe Ditzel at Denmark’s TV 2 reveals that burning wood chips from Brazil is neither sustainable nor helping address the climate crisis.
“It sounds crazy,” Copenhagen’s former mayor Morten Kabell said to TV 2. He was responsible for Copenhagen’s climate plan when the decision was made to expand the Amager power plant to burn wood chips. He told TV 2 he was promised that the wood chips would come from Denmark or a neighbouring country.
“To transport wood from there [Brazil] to the rich world so that we can heat our apartments – that is simply against any kind of common sense.”
In 2016, HOFOR, the Greater Copenhagen Utility, stated that the wood chips would be “primarily sourced from neighbouring EU countries”.
TV 2’s map of the 8,859 kilometres that the wood chips have to be transported demonstrates clearly just how crazy this false solution to the climate crisis really is:
Biomass is carbon neutral thanks to an accounting error
But it gets worse. Biomass is considered carbon neutral thanks to an error in the climate accounting for emissions from burning biomass.
The accounting error was included in the Kyoto Protocol and the loophole was not plugged in the Paris Agreement. In 2019, Tim Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton University, described the accounting error to Ditzel as follows:
“An accounting error was made so that Brazil could theoretically pave the entire Amazon, and Denmark could import all the wood from the Amazon and burn it off as CO2-neutral energy.”
Here’s how a 2017 Pacific Standard article described the miracle of carbon neutral biomass:
The rickety carbon-neutral status of woody bioenergy has been sold to the public on a deceptively simple principle: Although a tree’s carbon is released during combustion to produce energy, there are no net emissions because a new tree will absorb the resulting carbon dioxide. This model assumes that the CO2 sequestered by immature woodlands and forest plantations full of saplings is instantaneously equal (that is to say, without a 35- to 50-year deficit) to the centuries of carbon captured by the old-growth trees of a mature forest.
“A major environmental problem”
Between five and ten percent of the 1.2 million tons of wood chips that will be burned in Copenhagen’s BIO4 power plant will come from Brazil. The wood chips come from industrial eucalyptus plantations in the state of Amapá.
The plantations are run by a company called AMCEL, which has plantations covering a total of more than 80,000 hectares. AMCEL is controlled by two Japanese corporations, Nippon Paper Industries and Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha, a shipping and logistics company.
The forest and savanna were cleared about 30 years ago to make way for the monoculture plantations. “This is a major environmental problem,” Odilon Portal, a forest engineers at Amapá State University, told TV 2. Native species cannot live in a eucalyptus monoculture.
It is not sustainable because it is a monoculture. Animal species are dependent on the soil, microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, insects. All this affects the biodiversity of the area.
Forest Stewardship Council certified monocultures
HOFOR’s Supply Director, Jane Egebjerg Andersen, told TV 2, “We need to have sustainable biomass, and we do this by sourcing from different places from Europe and elsewhere.”
AMCEL’s plantation operations have been certified as well managed by the Forest Stewardship Council since 2008. But TV 2’s journalist Emil Ellesøe Ditzel travelled to Brazil to investigate the impact of the plantations on local communities. He found that there were ongoing land disputes and AMCEL stands accused of treating local farmers “inhumanly”.
There are about 150 pending conflicts between AMCEL and local farmers. Several of the farmers have been evicted from their land.
Maria Gjerding, president of the Danish Nature Conservation Association, commented that,
I think it is deeply shocking that Copenhagen citizens get their electricity and heat from a company that has such problematic conditions and removes local farmers from their land.
Edineia Dos Santos and her family have lived on their land for 30 years. AMCEL claims that the land belongs to the company. “They come and threaten us. They are aggressive. They fly drones over our houses,” she told TV 2.
Dos Santos told TV 2 that in one incident, two AMCEL employees turned up in a car to mark the boundary of AMCEL’s property. One of them hit her on the knee with a stick with a nail in it. Another AMCEL employee picked up a gun. “Now I can kill you because there are no witnesses,” he said. But when Edineia Dos Santos’ sister came running, he put the gun away. The two sisters picked up sticks and chased the car away.
The AMCEL employees told a different version of the story, in which they were attacked by the two women.
A local judge subsequently ruled that the property did belong to AMCEL. In May 2019 the company bulldozed the Dos Santos family’s house. The company wins the vast majority of the land rights cases against small farmers. “Justice works only on their side,” Ediniea Dos Santos said. “We don’t want money. We just want to keep our land so we can grow something.”
Markus Kröger is an associate professor of development studies at the University of Helsinki. He has researched land conflicts around industrial tree plantations in Brazil, including in Amapá. “It is naïve to claim that one can rely on the Brazilian legal system,” he told TV 2.
SCS Global Service, the company that certified AMCEL, sided with the company in its assessment of AMCEL, allowing the company to provide detailed “clarifications” of land rights conflicts associated with its plantation operations. In its assessment report, SCS did not allow an equivalent space for local farmers to explain their version of events.
Of course this isn’t surprising. SCS was paid by AMCEL to carry out the assessment. That conflict of interest is a feature of all FSC certifications.
TV 2 spoke to Wueber Duarte Penafort, the president of the Association of the Public Ministry of Amapá (AMPAP). His office is currently investigating a case about AMCEL’s land conflicts. Penafort told TV 2 that,
The way AMCEL operates is completely inhumane. Humans have the right to water, good health and access to what the earth can provide from fruits and animals. But these people have nothing left but the clothes they wear, and that does not at all match the image Amcel is trying to paint from the outside.”