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Climate Change

Asia swaps coal for wood fuel, but emissions still a threat

Critics say biomass burning in South Korea and Japan poses logging, carbon risks

A clay path runs through a forest in Dong Nai Province. Vietnam's wood pellet exports have tripled in five years as Japan and South Korea look for an alternative to coal. (Photo by Lien Hoang)

HO CHI MINH CITY -- The rebuke of coal has pushed countries like South Korea and Japan to embrace the harvesting of trees to be processed into wood pellets, but environmentalists are warning that this fuel might prove as damaging as the black mineral it is replacing.

Some critics focus on how the pellet trade is causing deforestation in Vietnam, Asia's top exporter of the chips, while others focus on the carbon emissions of harvesting trees and machining them into pellets so they can be burned at power plants. Governments from Tokyo to London have subsidized businesses swapping coal for what is euphemistically known as biomass, but they undercount all the emissions involved, the U.K.'s Chatham House says.

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