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Burning wood is not a climate change solution

Burning wood is not a climate change solution
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For three years in a row, Congress has passed a budget rider falsely declaring forest biomass energy as "carbon neutral.” Now its supporters in the Senate are trying again — as if they can legislate the laws of nature. 

Similarly, thanks to loopholes in arcane United Nations (UN) accounting rules, greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union (EU) from burning wood pellets imported from the U.S. aren’t counted against Paris commitments by either the US or the EU.

That’s right tons of carbon are going into the atmosphere, but the UN climate process does not recognize this fact. This goes a long way towards explaining why a significant proportion of the UK’s electricity is generated by imported wood pellets, and why the EU plans to obtain a majority of its “renewable energy” from this source. 

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Nature, of course, knows better. No matter what the US Congress or the UN says, burning forest biomass releases much more carbon dioxide than burning coal, for the same amount of electricity generated. And that doesn’t count additional emissions associated with harvesting, chipping, drying, pelletizing or transportation. 

In theory, some or even most emissions from burning wood can later be reclaimed if forests are managed sustainably over decades. Proponents point out that life cycle analyses making that optimistic assumption find that in the long run burning wood pellets sometimes (but not always) emits fewer greenhouse gases than burning coal.

What’s wrong with that? Simple: being “better than coal” is not good enough. To avoid terrible climate outcomes we need to eliminate human greenhouse gas emissions very quickly — within two or three decades. A “solution” that increases greenhouse emissions for decades, and then is merely better than coal, is not a solution at all.

So, what should we be doing? To stabilize climate, we need at a minimum to stop adding carbon to the atmosphere. Unless we do that within the next couple of decades, which shows no sign of happening, then we will also need to move enormous amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere into natural reservoirs like forests and soils. 

Burning wood prevents the accomplishment of both these goals: it increases emissions of carbon in the near term, and because it requires periodic harvesting of forests, it does not allow forest carbon stocks to increase. 

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And of course, in the highly likely event that we don’t suddenly develop massive amounts of new political will, and don’t immediately start rapidly eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, then we’ll need to increase forest carbon stocks even more if we are to avoid an unacceptable buildup of carbon in the atmosphere. 

On top of that, biotic feedbacks to climate warming, like greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost, will continue to add carbon to the atmosphere, so to stabilize climate, we’ll need to offset those emissions, too, by stuffing yet more carbon into natural reservoirs. This makes it even more important to let forests grow. 

Instead of burning wood, we should be developing and deploying truly carbon-free energy sources. Solar panels, for example, can generate up to 80 times more power per unit area than growing wood for pellets (while trees only turn 0.25 percent of the sun's rays into energy, solar panels capture 20 percent). 

Solar and wind technologies are mature enough to be deployed at much larger scales than they presently are. We also need to develop new solutions for sectors of the economy that are difficult to electrify or otherwise decarbonize.

Finally, we need to do everything possible to move carbon out of the atmosphere and back into natural reservoirs like forests, soils, and wetlands. Among other things, this means letting forests grow, not harvesting them for energy.

Stopping climate change will be difficult, but we’ll never do it if we allow ourselves to be deceived into investing in “solutions” which we know aren’t good enough. Our elected officials should reject any effort to treat burning forests for electricity the same as truly clean energy like solar and wind.

Philip B. Duffy, Ph.D., is the president and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center.