Dead wood is ‘having a moment’: 3 stories you may have missed

© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Why dead trees are ‘the hottest commodity on the planet’ 

A series of unfortunate events has sent lumber prices soaring. 

The story: At first glance, the sky-high price of lumber in North America could easily be attributed to the pandemic, which has fueled a wave of do-it-yourself projects and home renovations. But Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic writes that it’s more complicated than that. A “one-two punch” of climate-change-fueled insect infestations and wildfires that devastated the Canadian lumber industry in recent years limited supply just as demand surged.

The big picture: Much has been said about the future risks that climate change is expected to pose for agricultural commodities — notably coffee. But the lumber shortage shows that climate change is making itself felt right now. As biology professor Janice Cooke told The Atlantic: “There are people who say, ‘Climate change isn’t affecting me.’ But they’re going to go to the hardware store and say, ‘Holy cow, the price of lumber has gone up.’ ” 

From lumber to pellets: An increasingly popular source of energy is coming under fire. 

The story: Wood pellets, writes Gabriel Popkin in The New York Times, are “having a moment.” 

Tiny bits of compressed wood made from American trees are being produced at a level never seen before, filling a growing appetite for biofuel in Europe and in Japan, where the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster has made alternative energy sources more attractive. Yet wood pellets are proving “divisive,” Popkin writes, noting the industry’s claim that it is helping to combat climate change by replacing dirty fossil fuels with “clean bioenergy.”

Caught in the middle: Low-income and minority Americans who live near wood pellet factories and suffer from their noise and pollution. 

The big picture: Global efforts to combat climate change have always included switching from dirty fuels to slightly less-dirty fuels — and that’s where wood pellets are, Popkin writes. While many foresters, economists and environmental policy experts have endorsed wood pellets as a more sustainable energy alternative, many scientists disagree. They note that wood releases more climate-warming carbon per unit of electricity than either coal or gas. 

As efforts to reduce humanity’s use of fossil fuels gain steam, the path toward “greener” sources of immediately available energy will continue.

Read more here.

One scientist’s “last hurrah” just might change the world. 

The story: A distinguished (and decorated) plant biologist has a plan, writes Sarah Kaplan in The Washington Post, to breed “ideal plants” that could store far more carbon in their roots, potentially taking “as much as 20 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans out of the atmosphere each year.” 

In this remarkable story, Kaplan chronicles the scientific journey of Joanne Chory and her drive to help humanity solve the climate crisis — all while facing her own personal crisis. 

The big picture: If wood pellets are having a “moment” as an energy source, it’s fair to say that nature is having its own moment as a tool to fight climate change, thanks to years of research like Chory’s. Protecting forests, for one, represents at least a third of the global action needed to prevent climate catastrophe, according to an oft-cited recent study. New research on soil itself points to its potential as a climate solution, including the massive amounts of carbon stored in coastal soils. 

The next step: Turning science into action. As Chory says: “Now we just have to do it.

Read more here.


Bruno Vander Velde is the senior communications director for Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Logging in Albrolhos, Brazil (© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)