In the most financially successful version of biomass technology to date, huge swathes of forests in North America are clearcut and all the vegetation ground and compressed into dense little chips that look like the feed pellets available at the corner pet store. After it’s been processed into these generic pellets, the wood is relatively easy to use as a replacement for coal: the wood (or any other organic material) is made to behave as much as possible like very small, broken-up pieces of coal in a furnace. Logs and wood pellets image courtesy of VisionTIR

Does wood bioenergy help or harm the climate?

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In the most financially successful version of biomass technology to date, huge swathes of forests in North America are clearcut and all the vegetation ground and compressed into dense little chips that look like the feed pellets available at the corner pet store. After it’s been processed into these generic pellets, the wood is relatively easy to use as a replacement for coal: the wood (or any other organic material) is made to behave as much as possible like very small, broken-up pieces of coal in a furnace. Logs and wood pellets image courtesy of VisionTIR

In the 2015 Paris climate accord, 197 countries agreed to limit warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” and to strive for 1.5 degrees Celsius. To have even a roughly 50 percent chance of achieving this goal, net global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by nearly half from 2010 levels this decade and reach zero by mid-century (UNFCCC 2021). Consequently, at least 140 countries, accounting for about 90 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, have pledged to reach net zero emissions around the middle of this century (Climate Action Tracker 2021). But few have specified how they will do so. A growing number, including the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have declared wood bioenergy to be carbon neutral, allowing them to exclude the carbon dioxide generated from wood bioenergy combustion in their greenhouse gas accounting. Many subsidize wood bioenergy to help meet their renewable energy targets (Norton et al. 2019). The appeal is intuitive: burning fossil fuels adds carbon that has been sequestered underground for millions of years to the atmosphere, while forests might regrow, eventually removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But can burning trees—including not just the trunk, but also the bark, branches, needles or leaves, roots, stumps, mill waste, sawdust, and all the other vegetative materials known as “biomass” that make up a forest—help cut carbon emissions in time to prevent climate catastrophe?

References

Allergy & Asthma Network, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Public Health Association, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, National Association of County & City Health Officials, et al. 2016. Letter to policymakers [Press release]. https://www.naccho.org/uploads/downloadable-resources/Policy-and-Advocacy/Health-organizational-letter-health-impacts-of-biomass.pdf.

Belesova, K., Heymann, D. L., & Haines, A. 2020. “Integrating climate action for health into Covid-19 recovery plans.” BMJ, 370, m3169. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m3169.

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Jennifer Smith
Jennifer Smith
2 months ago

Very interesting and informative. However, there are other factors to take into account. Where I am (New Hampshire), the forest products industry is using mature trees for lumber. Much of that is then sequestered carbon. The use of tops for chip and pellet production helps keep land forested that might be developed in the near future permanently reducing forest cover. I don’t know whether the 25%estimate for thinning is accurate. It sounds high sine most foresters are only taking high quality, large trees. Many medium size trees now have more rapid growth from increased share of the canopy. The use… Read more »

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