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Scientists warn U.S. Congress against declaring biomass burning carbon neutral

  • Some 200 U.S. environmental scientists have sent a letter to congressional committee chairs urging they reject new rules proposed in April under the Clean Air Act that would define biomass, when burned to produce energy, as being carbon neutral.
  • The scientists say that biomass burning — using wood pellets to produce energy at converted coal-burning power plants — is not only destructive of native forests which store massive amounts of carbon, but also does not reduce carbon emissions.
  • A long-standing UN policy, recognizing biomass burning as carbon neutral, has caused the U.S. forestry industry to gear up to produce wood pellets for power plants in Britain, the EU, South Korea and beyond. Scientists warn that the failure to count the emissions produced by such plants could help destabilize the global climate.
  • The letter from environmental scientists concludes: “We are hopeful that a new and more scientifically sound direction will be considered by Members [of Congress] that emphasizes forest protections, and a shift away from consumption of wood products and forest biomass energy to help mitigate the climate crisis.”
The United Kingdom’s Drax power stations, one of the world’s largest users of woody biomass for energy production. Shown here is the Drax biomass dome, which once burned coal. The UK has nearly eliminated burning coal for energy, cutting its official UN IPCC carbon emissions, but is ramping up its burning of biomass. The uncounted carbon from Drax flows into the atmosphere, adding to climate change. Photo credit: DECCgovuk on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic attracts much of the world’s attention, global warming continues intensifying. Today, in a plea to not ignore the planet’s rapidly escalating climate crisis, some 200 environmental scientists from 35 states signed onto a letter delivered to U.S. congressional leaders imploring them to “oppose legislative proposals that would promote logging and wood consumption, ostensibly as a natural climate change solution.”

Currently, biomass producers in the U.S. and Eastern Europe are gearing up to deliver millions of tons of wood pellets to the EU, Great Britain and other nations to meet a rising global demand for biomass burned at industrial-scale levels at power plants, replacing coal. According to the scientists, wood pellets have been erroneously declared carbon neutral by the United Nations, creating what’s been dubbed “a carbon emission accounting loophole” that could help destabilize the global climate.

The scientists urged chairs of House and Senate environment-related committees to resist claims that logging and wood consumption “represent an effective carbon storage approach, or claims that biomass logging and incinerating trees for energy represents renewable, carbon-neutral energy.”

“The growing consensus of scientific findings is that to effectively mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, we must not only move beyond fossil fuel consumption, but must also substantially increase protection of our native forests in order to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere and store more, not less, carbon in our forests,” says the two-page letter.”

The text was followed by nine pages listing signatories, including leading names in climate science and conservation. The letter backs up its conclusions with citations to 24 scientific papers — studies measuring carbon sequestration in trees and soils, examining forest management, wildfire suppression and other issues.

The document comes at a critical moment: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler informed federal lawmakers in April that the agency is presently drafting new rules under the Clean Air Act that will define biomass, when burned to produce energy, as being carbon neutral.

That decision would almost surely intensify U.S. logging for wood products used in energy production, while also encouraging the conversion of native forests to wood pellet plantations — plantation forests fall far short of the carbon storage capacity of native woodlands. The rule change is expected this summer, according to Wheeler.

Pine forests cut to provide wood pellets for power plants are replanted, according to the forestry industry, so woody biomass as an energy resource could technically be called carbon neutral, but only over the long term. It takes many decades for new trees to mature and for the carbon equation to balance out. Photo credit: ChattOconeeNF on / CC BY.

Carbon neutrality conundrum

Generally, biomass burning carbon neutrality stems from the notion that CO2 emissions from trees that are harvested, turned into wood pellets, and burned to produce electricity are offset, or canceled out, by the planting of new trees that will absorb those emissions from day one.

However, the scientists behind the congressional letter point to numerous studies that conclude that carbon neutrality, if trees are replanted at all, takes 50 to 100 years — time that the world doesn’t have. A 2018 special report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that nations must dramatically decarbonize their economies by 2030 to avoid catastrophic global warming impacts.

“The only option we have right now to avoid climate disaster is [to conserve] the natural world,” Bill Moomaw, co-author of the letter to Congress and a leading forest ecologist from Tufts University, told Mongabay. “Forests are the one thing we have the greatest potential to protect. If we let them grow, they will store more and more carbon.”

Still, the UN carbon-neutrality policy remains popular with governments, energy companies and investors across the European Union, in the United Kingdom and South Korea. There, burning wood pellets in former coal-fired power plants is a fast-growing energy source that enables countries to claim on-paper-only carbon emission reductions. Recent studies find that burning wood actually produces more emissions than coal.

Moreover, much of the pelletized wood comes from the Southeastern U.S., where environmentalists argue that to provide wood pellets thousands of acres of native trees are being clear cut annually and sometimes replaced by tree plantations — destroying sensitive ecosystems and weakening environmental resiliency against climate change-intensified storms and flooding.

The handfuls of wood pellets and the green sleeves seen here are part of a biomass industry-supported PR campaign claiming that burning wood to produce energy is carbon neutral — a view with which many scientists adamantly do not agree. Photo credit: #ODF on Visual hunt / CC BY.

Biomass proponents speak out

Complicating federal conservation efforts — and prompting the letter to Congress — was a carefully written commentary in The Hill on April 26 under the headline “Wood energy as a climate change solution” by two prominent figures in environmental regulation: Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate Energy Solutions and EPA deputy administrator from 2009-2014, and Robert Bonnie, a senior advisor at Resources for the Future at Duke University, and US Department of Agriculture undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment from 2013-2017.

Both acknowledged that biomass is controversial, but ask: “Is it possible to have a forest biomass policy that is good for forests and helps combat climate change? We think so.”

Perciasepe and Bonnie write: “While it might seem counter-intuitive, timber harvesting is vital to conserving (privately owned forests) because it provides economic incentives for landowners to reforest and preserve existing forests in the face of creeping housing development.”

The pair notes that any biomass policy must account for carbon emissions from burning trees, but they argue that “U.S. forests have been growing faster and storing more carbon than they emit, even as we harvest timber. We have the technology and know-how to monitor carbon stocks in our forests to ensure that more carbon is being stored than lost to harvests.”

The two concede that they “have strong reservations about the ability of the Trump administration’s EPA to strike the right [policy] balance,” but point to the European Union as a model for how a biomass-for-energy policy can work efficiently with “carbon stocks from forests where biomass is harvested… maintained or enhanced.”

Not everyone agrees with that optimistic view. Last year, 200 EU climate scientists lobbied European Union officials, saying that no such biomass burning carbon balance is being maintained, that U.S. and Eastern European forests are being destroyed, and that dangerous levels of carbon emissions are going uncounted to the detriment of the global climate.

On May 5, The Hill published a rebuttal to the Perciasepe-Bonnie commentary, written by four of the congressional letter signatories.

“Do policies that promote burning more wood cause more growth and carbon storage in forests than leaving forests standing?” the authors asked. “Again, research shows the answer is no.”

One myth the rebuttal authors strive to bust: the immediacy of carbon storage. Trees, they point out, do not sequester substantial amounts of carbon until they are at least 30 years old, and then keep accumulating carbon for centuries; newly planted trees, which biomass advocates promote as climate savers, do not become significant carbon sinks for decades.

In the early spring of 2019, investigators tracked logging trucks from a mature hardwood forest en-route to a North Carolina wood pellet manufacturing facility. The clear cut from which the trees were removed is located in the Tar-Pamlico River basin, alongside Sandy Creek, which feeds into North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound. Credit: Dogwood Alliance.

Determined to keep battling

Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, and a conservation biologist, co-authored the congressional letter with Moomaw and Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist at the Earth Island Institute in Berkeley, California. DellaSala told Mongabay he understands that persuading U.S. lawmakers to side with native forests and conservation, over industries that create jobs while also promising climate solutions, is a heavy lift for politicians in both parties — especially in states with strong forestry lobbies.

“I have been struggling with this issue my entire career,” DellaSala said. “Politicians have a tough time with issues where there are point-counterpoint arguments.… But we want Congress to know there is more to this story than what they are hearing from industry and certain scientists.

“So our thinking is, we will deliver this letter to committee chairs, and we will follow up with Zoom meetings with any interested member of Congress. They are not seeing the complete picture. They will do more harm in legislating in favor of biomass. It’s not climate safe. Biomass is not carbon neutral. When it comes to climate change, we are simply running out of time to make the right policy decisions.”

In related news, biomass critics were dealt a setback this week in Europe. A 2019 lawsuit against the European Union demanded that the EU annul a portion of its mandated Renewable Energy Directive (REDII) which established that the burning of biomass would be considered renewable on par with solar and wind energy, and thus carbon neutral. That suit was dismissed on May 11 by the European General Court in Luxembourg for lack of legal standing.

The March 2019 lawsuit was brought by plaintiffs from six countries, including one in the United States. The court ruled, as legal experts predicted, that only EU member states and institutions have standing to sue, not individuals or NGOs.

“We disagree with the court’s finding on standing,” said Mary Booth, the director of the US-based Partnership for Policy Integrity, who spearheaded the case and an expert witness. “The court should strike down the biomass provisions… due to their incompatibility with core principles of EU environmental law… We are working with the applicants and legal advisers to determine whether the applicants will bring an appeal against this decision which denies them access to the courts.”

The Congressional letter was delivered this afternoon to Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chair, House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis; Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), chair, House Energy and Commerce Committee; Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair, House Natural Resources Committee; Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chair House Agriculture Committee; Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), chair, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Banner image caption: A formerly wooded, large wetland devastated to make wood pellets. Investigators tracked logging trucks carrying whole hardwood trees from this location just outside of Williamston, North Carolina in the Roanoke River basin, to a North Carolina wood pellet manufacturing facility. The industry has long maintained it uses wood waste, not whole trees to make pellets. Credit: Dogwood Alliance.

Justin Catanoso is a regular contributor to Mongabay and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso

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