The False Hope Of Biomass

Regeneration of a Montana forest after a fire.

“Earlier this year, the European Union was celebrated in headlines across the world when renewable energy surpassed the use of fossil fuels on the continent for the first time in history,” wrote Majlie de Puy Kamp for CNN.

The European Union pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and approved burning biomass as an alternative to coal, categorizing it as a renewable fuel. They found wood pellets were a suitable, renewable fuel to produce electricity and searched the globe for enough of them.

“The American South emerged as Europe’s primary source of biomass imports,” de Puy Kamp wrote.

Enter companies like Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, with four wood pellet manufacturing plants in North Carolina.

The world’s leading authority on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, explicitly recognizes bioenergy as a renewable energy source that is critical to our low-carbon future. The IPCC also concludes that sustainable forest management is critical to prevent forest conversion to non-forest uses.

We need bioenergy both to replace fossil fuels and to keep forests as forests.

Enviva website.

Not so fast!

The IPCC states in its guidelines “do not automatically consider or assume biomass used for energy as ‘carbon neutral,’ even in cases where the biomass is thought to be produced sustainably.”

As I wrote in 2015, while the carbon cycle of renewable fuels can eliminate putting fossilized carbon into the atmosphere, and reduces emissions of particulate matter, the amount of CO2 released when burning biomass is about the same as with burning coal. What makes burning wood pellets and other biomass “sustainable” is we would leave more fossilized carbon in the ground.

Burning stuff to release energy that is made into electricity remains problematic in terms of emissions. While windmills, solar panels and hydroelectric generators are not without issues, these forms of electricity generation better serve our future energy needs as we work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As we contemplate the EU’s path to reducing reliance on fossil fuels, there is another issue that gets lost. The quest for wood pellets has greater impact on marginalized communities near forests that are being harvested for fuel. Read de Puy Kamp’s article for more information about these climate justice issues.

“I can’t think of anything that harms nature more than cutting down trees and burning them,” said William Moomaw, professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University.

While the EU may meet an arbitrary goal of reducing its carbon footprint, by using wood pellets to generate electricity the achievement is more paperwork drill than actual reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Do better Europeans!

This entry was posted in Climate Action, Climate Change and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The False Hope Of Biomass

  1. A.D. says:

    This blog post makes excellent points. Thank you for featuring it.

    There’s a certain irony to reading it in Iowa. Across our state, there are landowners and land managers who are trying, with too little funding and staff, to restore public and private natural areas to better ecological health by cutting down invading trees and shrubs.

    Iowa needs more of the right kinds of trees growing in the right places. But we also badly need fewer wrong kinds of trees growing in the wrong places. And since the wrong trees need to be removed anyway, it’s too bad some of them can’t be used as fuel.

    Liked by 1 person

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