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Synthesis manuscript for an Ecology & Society Special Feature on Telecoupling: A New Frontier for Global Sustainability

Abstract: European demand for renewable energy resources has led to rapidly increasing transatlantic exports of wood pellets from the southeastern United States (SE US) since 2009. Disagreements have arisen over the global greenhouse gas reductions associated with replacing coal with wood, and groups on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have raised concerns that increasing biomass exports might negatively affect SE US forests and the ecosystem services they provide. We use the telecoupling framework to test assertions that the intended benefits of the wood pellet trade for Europe might be offset by negative consequences in the SE US. Through a review of current literature and available data sets, we characterize the observed and potential changes in the environmental, social, and economic components of the sending and receiving regions to assess the overall sustainability of this renewable energy system. We conclude that the observed transatlantic wood pellet trade is an example of a mutually beneficial telecoupled system with the potential to provide environmental and socioeconomic benefits in both the SE US and Europe despite some negative effects on the coal industry. We recommend continued monitoring of this telecoupled system to quantify the environmental, social, and economic interactions and effects in the sending, receiving, and spillover systems over time so that evidence-based policy decisions can be made with regard to the sustainability of this renewable energy pathway.

Citation: Parish, E. S., A. J. Herzberger, C. C. Phifer and V. H. Dale. 2018. Transatlantic wood pellet trade demonstrates telecoupled benefits. Ecology and Society 23 (1):28. [online] URL:

Publication Year
Project Title
Bioenergy Sustainability: How to Define and Measure it
Contact Person
Esther S. Parish
Contact Organization
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Bioenergy Category
Esther Parish, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory , Anna Herzeberger, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Michigan State University , Colin Phifer, School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, Michigan Technological University , Virginia Dale, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
WBS Project Number
Funded from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Bioenergy Technologies Office.

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Biomass Utilization Issues
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• Power: Technology is currently available to enable co-firing with coal, reducing the carbon intensity of baseload electricity and providing one of the few renewable dispatchable options.
• Products: Mixtures of chemicals with carbon-hydrogen-oxygen bonds such as those found in biomass are too valuable to burn.
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Bioenergy Category

Biomass power offers utilities a potential pathway to increase their renewable generation portfolios for compliance with renewable energy standards and to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relative to current fossil-based technologies. To date, a large body of life-cycle assessment (LCA) literature assessing biopower’s life-cycle GHG emissions has been published.
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Originally available at (Accessed January 7, 2013).

Bioenergy Category

The IPCC SRREN report addresses information needs of policymakers, the private sector and civil society on the potential of renewable energy sources for the mitigation of climate change, providing a comprehensive assessment of renewable energy technologies and related policy and financial instruments. The IPCC report was a multinational collaboration and synthesis of peer reviewed information: Reviewed, analyzed, coordinated, and integrated current high quality information. The OBP International Sustainability activities contributed to the Bioenergy chapter, technology cost annex as well as lifecycle assessments and sustainability information.


One of the major objectives of the current expansion in bioenergy cropping is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions for environmental benefit. The cultivation of bioenergy and biofuel crops also affects biodiversity more directly, both positively and negatively. Ecological impact assessment methods for bioenergy projects (including changes to policy and land use) should address not simply changes to species abundance at field level, but include larger scale issues, including changes to landscape diversity, potential impacts to primary and secondary habitats and potential impacts on climate change. Such assessments require a correspondingly broad range of scientific methods, including modelling of climate and land use as well as the observation of biodiversity and landscape indicators. It is also possible to adopt evidence-based guidelines for good practice for situations where comprehensive assessments are not available. These might include favouring projects and policies that avoid gene flow to wild relatives of crops in centres of diversity, that do not result in invasion by the crop into other habitats, that enhance field-scale biodiversity, that increase landscape diversity, that do not threaten valued habitats within the local landscape, that promote the sustainable management of biodiverse habitats, that do not increase the risk of loss of primary habitats and that result in a proportionately large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Data Source
BioEnergy Research
Contact Person
Les G. Firbank
Bioenergy Category
Les G. Firbank
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