Avoiding catastrophic climate change requires not only drastically reducing emissions, but also reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere. Realistically, this means protecting and restoring forests so that they can store more carbon. Unfortunately, however, many renewable energy policies around the world promote logging and burning forest wood as a source of so-called “zero carbon” or “carbon neutral” energy, which has led to a surge in forest harvesting to meet increasingly aggressive renewable energy targets.
Of course, burning wood isn’t really zero carbon or carbon neutral. In reality, burning wood emits more carbon dioxide per unit energy generated than burning fossil fuels. And while forest regrowth can theoretically take up carbon dioxide to offset those emissions, net cumulative emissions from burning wood can exceed those from fossil fuels for decades to centuries. This fundamental contradiction—that we urgently need to protect ecosystems and store more carbon in forests, even as we increasingly log them for fuel—is coming into sharper focus as the world grapples with how to replace Russian gas and oil. Nowhere is this dilemma more acute than in the European Union (EU), where dependence on Russian fossil fuel imports is high but bioenergy already provides about 60 percent of renewable energy, with the majority sourced from burning wood (Eurostat 2022). People outside the EU, including in the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea—and anywhere else that cares about increasing renewable energy—should pay close attention to the fight over wood-burning playing out in the European Union now, because it’s an object lesson in the kinds of perverse outcomes that arise when policymakers ignore science. (See Figure 1.)
The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent, nonprofit media organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.