Thursday, December 8, 2022

Europeans stack up firewood for winter; just in case Russia turns energy taps dry

It’s not the first time Europe is exporting wood pellets from the United States though the volume and cost this approaching winter would burn up most pockets. 

The Americans shipped 7.4 million metric tonnes (MMT) of wood pellets last year but this year it would be significantly higher as Europeans dread a freezing winter on having pricked a belligerent Russian Bear on Ukraine. 

The Wall Street Journal notes: “The average price before insurance and shipping costs have risen to nearly $170 per metric ton from about $140 last year. 

Even before the Ukraine crisis, the EU was consuming wood pellets as if no tomorrow—23.1 MMT in 2021—but this has already been overtaken in first eight months of 2022, likely to be 24.3 MMT consumed when the year stops ticking. The domestic production can’t keep up with the demand. 

So far, the timber imports were largely from the US, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Now sanctions dictate Europe to shun Russia and Belarus while Ukraine has gone too far in its suicidal wish. 

So prices have quadrupled. Citizens are buying timber much, much in advance than hitherto in the Netherlands; Belgium is simply unable to keep up with the demand; Germany’s largest residential landlord Vonovia would reduce heating for tenants at night between 11 pm and 6 am to 17 degrees Celsius; Hungary has banned firewood exports this year; etc, etc. 

In Europe, 40% of heating arrives from boilers that burn natural gas to heat water, then piped into radiators into buildings. The next big one is electricity which takes care of 30% of requirement. 

European governments usually subsidized “sustainable biomass” to make up for over-reliance on fossil fuel and no less because of that Go Green obsession.

The data shows that in 2019, the European nations spent $7 billion a year on subsidies for burning wood for electricity or heat. More than half of it, as was observed in 2017, went to biodiversity companies in Germany and the UK. 

But this year, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee has framed new rules which has redefined “sustainable biomass”. It was decided that primary woody biomass—or unprocessed wood—would not be considered a source of renewable energy—and thus not a candidate for subsidy. The incentives to companies have begun to dry up. 

So timber goes around the world to arrive on European shores which, on its part, is beginning to snap its support to biodiversity companies.

The United Kingdom, for instance, is rethinking its subsidy to Drax, the largest renewable energy plant on the island. This grant last year had measured up to $1 billion. Now the energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is asking for a rethink. He feels it makes no sense to import them from the “Louisiana—it’s not sustainable…transporting these wood pellets halfway around the world—doesn’t make sense to me.”

In 2021, Drax had received $1 billion to burn forest biomass. 

The Dutch government, on its part, has decided this year to no longer grant subsidies for the use of biomass in district heating systems. 

The climate-seers of our world, such as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agrees that Co2 content of wood per unit of energy is comparable to that of coal, and is much higher than that of gas. Over-reliance on wood is a biodiversity crisis which is different, but worse, than the climate crisis. 

There is a matter of timber-theft—for example massive in Germany—and deforestation, all those illegal wildlife trades, and ivory and rhino horns, which would hurt before long. Powerful European nations of course are bullying its poorest members into deforestation. 

Thus citizens have begun to stock up wood-burning stoves. The price of natural gas, quadrupled, is not making life easier. 

The effect of wood-burning on climate? Well it releases harmful air pollutants, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5), black carbon (BC) dioxins, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). All of this seriously hurts the goal of Complete Green by 2030. 

There is of course a geopolitical dimension to this grave crisis. Russia could turn the dagger of oil and gas supply, imbedded in Europe’s heart, deeper this winter. The masses could cause a “European Spring” of its own in European capitals. The Right-wing forces now have a bone between their teeth which is shaking up the “Project EU”. Majority of Europeans, anyway, don’t like the bureaucrats of Brussels running their lives. And now they can’t fathom why their leaders are preferring war over diplomacy in Ukraine. After all, what’s the big deal if Ukraine is de-Nazified and is kept out of NATO?

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