Industrial wood burning is adding to climate change

Industrial wood burning is adding to climate change
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America is exporting huge amounts of our forest wood for burning in European power plants and other places around the world, even though science shows this wood is worse for climate change than the fossil fuels it is replacing.

This is ironic — and self-defeating — since both the U.S. and European Union falsely count wood as environmentally beneficial. In fact, wood pellet exports have grown by nearly 80 percent over the last five years alone precisely because they receive financial and regulatory subsidies E.U. and Asian governments, incentives that are intended to flight climate change.

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But in truth, wood burning actually emits more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated than coal.

Now the promotion of wood is being challenged by scientists and other advocates, both in the U.S. and Europe. Last week, the Partnership for Policy Integrity and more than two dozen investment organizations petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require companies making and using wood pellets to substantiate their claims of climate benefits so that investors will not be misled.

This week, a case has been filed in the European Court against forest wood being included in the EU's Renewable Energy Directive, a classification that has incentivized the burning of American wood across the European continent to generate electricity. Last year, 796 scientists wrote the European Parliament urging that the directive be amended, and the European Academies' Science Advisory Council has also urged reconsideration of subsidies for wood fuel.

Data from the U.S. Energy Department’s own Energy Information Administration shows that treating biomass as carbon neutral increases its use, and consequent carbon emissions. And the U.S. Court of Appeals actually ruled in 2013 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should count carbon dioxide emissions from bioenergy when issuing air pollution permits to power plants. Yet, despite this evidence, the U.S. bioenergy industry and lobbyists convinced Congress to enact legislation that forces EPA to treat biomass as “carbon neutral.” 

Wood is so bad for the climate today because of the time scales involved. Cutting and burning mature forests for fuel emits massive amounts of stored carbon, and reduces ongoing carbon uptake. Forest regrowth can even the accounts, removing equivalent carbon as emitted by combustion. But this takes decades, and in some cases centuries, to accomplish, and — in the meantime — atmospheric carbon pollution levels have been increased.           

We don’t have centuries or even decades to win the climate battle. A special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released last year finds that holding the increase in global average temperature to even remotely safe levels requires that global carbon dioxide emissions peak by 2020 and decline rapidly to net zero by 2050. The IPCC also has found that we must dramatically increase carbon “sinks”, primarily forests, that pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it as they grow. Forests are our best hope for taking carbon out of the air at the scale needed to produce meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases.

There is also increasing evidence that global warming is approaching self-reinforcing “tipping points” — like the melting of polar ice or the dieback of tropical forests — that could cause irreversible, self-perpetuating climate change. It is irresponsible to increase carbon dioxide levels from burning wood in the belief that it will re-absorbed in decades or centuries, by which time it will be far too late to prevent catastrophic climate impacts.

The processing and transport of wood fuel emits even more greenhouse gases, and forest harvesting also releases carbon from the soil, further accelerating climate change. Biodiversity is diminished and water supplies may well be affected.

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Refraining from cutting down whole trees for fuel and instead using the residues left behind when they are logged for other purposes still does not solve the problem, because net emissions are still excessive, and residue removal deprives the soil of carbon.

The misguided promotion of wood for burning diverts funding from truly clean sources like solar and wind that really do combat climate change. It is time that humanity turned its back on polluting wood, our oldest fuel, and fully embraced cleaner sources that are fit for the 21st century. Ending EU subsidies for burning American wood in Europe would be a good place to start.

Professor Peter Raven is director emeritus Missouri Botanical Society and a recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science. 

Mary S. Booth is director of Partnership for Policy Integrity.