Biomass energy from forests can be sustainable

25 August 2021

The issue of carbon neutrality for wood-based bioenergy just won’t go away. In recent months, Politico, The New York Times, and CNN all have run high-level stories that take the Europeans to task for using wood pellets from the U.S. South because of concerns that wood-based biomass is not carbon neutral.

The problem with all these stories is creating biomass energy from forests in fact is carbon neutral. There may be equity issues, as CNN raised, or local problems with the implementation of sustainable forest practices, but economic analyses consistently show that wood-based bioenergy is not only carbon neutral, but it reduces the net climate impact of household electricity consumption when it substitutes for fossil-based electricity.

Many scientists don’t want trees planted and harvested for anything, let alone energy. So, they argue that wood bioenergy isn’t carbon-neutral at all. This was basically the argument of a group of 500 scientists who wrote a public letter to several heads of state last winter. Many of the arguments made against wood bioenergy – high emissions when trees are harvested and a carbon debt – sound compelling, but fall apart when contrasted with reality.

Consider the “carbon debt” idea, which says that after trees are cut and burned for electricity, it takes a while for trees to regrow, and in the meantime, their emissions cause the same kinds of damages as the fossil energy they replace. Anybody can see that burning trees releases carbon. But this carbon has been stored in those trees for 30 to 50 years, not millions of years like coal or natural gas. Furthermore, trees regrow fairly quickly.

Look, if we were harvesting old-growth trees and converting them to electricity, then biomass-based electricity would be a problem. We would be taking carbon that had been cycling in a natural system for perhaps thousands of years, and burning it up. Trees that replace those old-growth stands would take hundreds to thousands of years to rebuild that carbon. More importantly, we would be losing amazing natural assets that host incredible biodiversity.

Yes, society has the capacity to do something as stupid as that, but in this case, it turns out we aren’t that dumb. Most trees burned for electricity today were planted or grown specifically for the purpose of harvesting them. This idea is really hard for people – even Ivy League economists – to get their heads around, but the truth of market economics is that when trees are valuable, people plant them as an investment.

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Source: inside sources