Wood energy as a climate change solution

Wood energy as a climate change solution
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will soon issue a regulation governing how carbon dioxide emissions from wood burned for energy (“biomass”) will be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

Depending on who you ask, biomass is either worse than fossil fuels and helps to destroy our forests, or it is a climate friendly substitute for fossil energy. Both views, of course, cannot be true. We need to get off fossil fuels and move to protect and grow our forests. Is it possible to have a forest biomass policy approach that is good for forests and helps combat climate change? We think so.

Forests will play a central role in any effort to address climate change. Globally, deforestation accounts for a substantial share of the 23 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the land sector. In the U.S., forests actually absorb the equivalent of about 15 percent of annual fossil fuel GHG emissions. Everyone agrees that growing trees is good for the climate; there is tremendous disagreement, however, on whether we should use some of our forest products to produce energy. If properly done, forest bioenergy can produce a win-win for forests and the climate.

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Most forests in the U.S. are privately-owned and, while it might seem counter-intuitive, timber harvesting is vital to conserving these forests because it provides economic incentives for landowners to reforest and preserve existing forests in the face of creeping housing development. Markets for wood are also vital to addressing catastrophic wildfire because they can finance selective harvests that clean out overgrown forests and restore their ecological health.

Traditionally, forest products markets have largely consisted of pulpwood for paper and solid wood for construction and other uses. Increasingly, forest landowners are also selling lower value trees for conversion into pellets for energy production. Forest bioenergy can benefit the environment if we can agree on a few basic principles.  

First, harvests for wood products, including bioenergy, must be sustainable and protect long-term forest health. State and federal forestry agencies and foresters have developed best management practices and sustainability programs to certify that forests are well-managed and that areas of high conservation value are protected. Biomass must adhere to these standards.  

Further, any policy approach to biomass must properly account for the GHG impacts from substituting renewable biomass for fossil fuels. Burning wood emits carbon dioxide, but what matters to the climate are net additions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And, for decades, U.S. forests have been growing faster and storing more carbon than they emit, even as we harvest timber. We have the technology and the know-how to monitor carbon stocks in our forests to ensure that more carbon is being stored than lost due to harvests. As carbon is reabsorbed in growing forests, biomass energy will prove to have far lower net emissions than fossil fuels and, in many cases, be carbon neutral. What’s more, technologies that employ bioenergy and then capture carbon dioxide and store it deep underground can result in carbon-negative energy — that is, energy that stores more carbon than it releases.

For the energy sector, there is widespread agreement that we must fully decarbonize by mid-century at the latest to avoid the most dangerous impacts from climate change. The rapid growth of wind and solar, increasing use of natural gas and the decline of coal have helped, but we must do more. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket. Unlike wind and solar, which provide intermittent power, biomass can provide a steady source of sustainable energy. Renewable biomass can be an important egg in our energy basket and one we cannot afford to cast aside. 

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Yes, reasonable scientists will continue to argue about the intricacies of carbon accounting and whether we need to develop complex models to track every pound of carbon dioxide. That debate is likely to continue. But we don’t need — and perhaps can’t afford — to wait for that debate to be resolved.  

While we have strong reservations about the ability of the Trump administration’s EPA to strike the right balance, it is more than possible to come up with a near-term win-win biomass policy rooted in market realities and using proven methods to assure carbon dioxide balance or better. The Europeans have already done this. Under EU regulations, forest biomass can be considered climate-friendly if it is harvested sustainably and if the carbon stocks from the forests where that biomass is harvested are being maintained or enhanced. Such an approach can help ensure that our forests remain as forests, that they remove more carbon than they release and that we move our energy systems to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. 

Bob Perciasepe is president of C2ES and former deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2009 to 2014.  Robert Bonnie is a senior advisor at Resources for the Future and at the Duke University Nicholas Institute and is former USDA undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment from 2013-2017.