Chopping down and burning our forests for electricity is not a climate solution
Addressing the climate crisis has finally become a major national priority for the public this election season, but that’s also prompted troubling discussions in the energy sector and on Capitol Hill about increasing the use of biomass energy, or burning plant materials like wood, to produce electricity.
We need to set the record straight on this: chopping down our forests and burning them for electricity will not reduce carbon pollution and will actually exacerbate the climate crisis. The best course of action is to dramatically build out our clean energy resources, like solar, wind, and energy efficiency, and retire all biomass and fossil fuel plants. Period.
Forests should never be used to serve our electricity needs, they are too valuable as “carbon sinks” – sucking carbon out of the atmosphere as opposed to putting carbon into it. Additionally, biomass energy inevitably leads to deforestation. For example, the EU’s use of biomass in place of coal is already accelerating logging in wetlands and coastal hardwood forests across the Southeastern U.S. After being ripped out of these historic forests, trees designated for biomass are reduced to wood pellets and shipped to power plants where they are burned, releasing large amounts of carbon pollution in the process.
The reality is that utility companies and the biomass industry are attempting to paint burning trees as “renewable, green, climate friendly energy” so that they and their allies can exploit government subsidies and continue raking in big profits at the expense of public health and technologies that are actually sustainable. The biomass industry’s argument depends on claims that the forests they cut grow back, thereby reabsorbing any carbon that was emitted. But, this is not the case.
The truth is that when forests are clear-cut and the trees burned for fuel, carbon that was otherwise stored in the forest is emitted to the atmosphere. It can take a forest anywhere from 40 to 100 years of regrowth to reabsorb that same amount of carbon, and the science shows that our climate can’t wait that long. To have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate impacts, we must reduce emissions rapidly over the next decade and start restoring degraded forests across the world, including here in the U.S.
In addition to forest destruction, biomass plants pollute at levels comparable to their fossil fuel counterparts, emitting more nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide than similarly-sized coal plants. Despite these facts, the expansion in the use of biomass fuel is increasing, largely unabated, causing a proliferation in the construction of wood pellet mills. Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, has already constructed eight wood pellet mills in the Southern U.S., with plans to build another thirteen, which are facing significant opposition. Each one of these mills can consume from 35 to 50 acres of forests a day.
Just like the coal, oil, and fracked gas industries, the wood pellet industry is an environmental justice (EJ) offender that disproportionately compromises the health and well being of low-income communities and communities of color. Wood pellet mills generate high levels of air pollutants that cause a variety of dangerous health problems in places least likely to have the resources to push back against the mills’ pollution and least prepared to deal with the mills long-term environmental consequences.
In North Carolina, 100 percent of Enviva’s mills are located in EJ communities, and the government continues to permit the company’s expansion despite local and statewide opposition. The citizens of Mississippi will also be hit particularly hard as the state has just issued a permit for Enviva to build the world’s largest wood pellet mill.
Biomass is not a climate solution, and it’s a real and present danger to public health. Falsely giving biomass beneficial labels will only lead to more reckless forest harvesting and unnecessary pollution.
To tackle the climate crisis, we need to join together to battle all forms of destructive, dirty energy, while aggressively building out our clean energy resources like solar, wind, and energy efficiency. Our forests must be expanded and protected to afford us a livable climate, not chopped down and burned.
Mary Anne Hitt is Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and Danna Smith is executive director of Dogwood Alliance.